Advice for Coping

Tips for parents who need to talk to their kids about tragedies, like wildfires, at home

Editor's note: Tucson Weekly contributor David Mendez wrote this story for the Colorado Springs Independent during that city's recent devastating wildfire. Since Southern Arizonans are all too familiar with wildfire dangers, we decided to publish it here, too.

During tragedies like wildfires, how do parents help their children cope with the fact that the world they knew might be forever changed?

"As parents, our job is to let kids experience the world, but at the same time, shield them from things that may be too overwhelming," says Dr. Fred Michel, a Colorado Springs specialist in child and adolescent psychiatry.

His first piece of advice: Limit children's exposure to the media.

"It's a general rule for life, but it applies well to times of crisis and trauma, especially when kids may not quite understand everything that's happening," he says. He advises parents to keep from overwhelming children by moving focus away from the news and toward discussion and family activities—or, at the very least, changing the channel.

Danel Lipparelli, a disaster mental-health supervisor with the American Red Cross, says that the one of the best ways for parents to help their children is to encourage communication.

"Comfort them. Reassure they're safe, and make sure they understand that no emotions they're experiencing are bad," she says. "Also, try as much as possible to maintain routines. Keep meals at the same times. Keep them going to school (if possible). Maintain bedtimes, and keep kids around people they know and trust," she said.

Michel reminds parents to pay attention to signs of anxiety. Children are often unable to clearly verbalize their fears, and sometimes display anxiety through regressive behavior, such as wetting the bed, having nightmares and throwing tantrums.

"If we understand it, it's easier to give them a bit more leniency," he says. "They're not just doing something bad that day; they're struggling with the anxiety of a tremendous change."

Experts recommend that families take steps to prepare their children for emergencies.

"It's important to maintain a dialogue," says Sara Kennedy, a spokesperson with the Red Cross. "Giving kids information and a bit of control over their situation helps them to feel safe." For example, she urges parents to get their children to be proactive by participating in home-safety drills.

Michel adds that including children in the process of determining what they'd like to take with them in the case of an emergency evacuation—like pets, pictures or favorite toys—can make them feel more comfortable and prepared.

Experts also remind parents to keep options open for their children to help others in the community who may need assistance—for example, by participating in food drives and volunteering at shelters.

"When you and your kid are involved in a solution, you don't worry so much, because you're doing something," Michel says.

Kennedy agrees. "Being part of the response for those who have been affected makes things a little less scary. (Kids) will know that they can help people, and it will help them feel that someone will help them if they need it," she says.

Most of all, experts believe that helping children cope begins with parents.

"Children are taking cues from their parents. Loss is a family issue that they all are going through," Kennedy says. "The process is one of grief. Recognizing that and realizing that it is legitimate is important."

Lipparelli encourages parents to recognize the gravity of their situation, and make peace with it.

"Accept that you're in a disaster; it's OK to be emotional about it," she says. "There's a lot of anxiety with everybody. That's normal. It will lessen; just go with it."