The Australian bushfires have left more than just a devastating mark on our beautiful country. The crisis has scorched our souls. Whether you are witnessing the devastation first-hand or experiencing it via media coverage, we have all been engulfed by a sense of helplessness, loss and uncertainty. And while we scroll through our social media feed seeing image after image, video after video of the devastation, our children are sitting beside us with perhaps even more questions. Like us, they are feeling uncertain, scared, sad and anxious, and it is our job to help them understand what is going on as well as understand their feelings.
For children, particularly those with difficulties understanding and using language, and for children on the autism spectrum, the news and images of the bushfires and their feelings associated with what they see can be confusing and unsettling. They may also not be able to express how these images make them feel. Utilising specific communication strategies, you can help your child to gain a better understanding of what they are in seeing in relation to Australian bushfire crisis and communicate their feelings.
Communication is Key
For anyone experiencing a challenging situation or a traumatic event, communication is key in helping them navigate the scenario. For children, this is perhaps even more important as we are their eyes and ears in many of these situations and can help them make sense of what they are seeing and hearing. It is important to talk openly with your child about what they are worried about and create as much security when it comes to their mental well-being as possible.
To encourage open communication with your child, we offer the followings tips:
- Encourage your child to talk to you so they can tell you what they’re feeling and thinking. If you set aside time each day for talking and listening to one-another, this type of communication will come more naturally when big or tricky issues emerge.
- Ensure you are always ready to listen and respond in a sensitive way to all kinds of things – not just good news or good feelings. By being open to talking about all kinds of feelings, including anger, joy, frustration, fear and anxiety, you will help your child develop a ‘feelings vocabulary’. But remember, talking about feeling angry is different from getting angry, and understanding the difference is an important step for your child when they are learning to communicate.
- Try focusing on more than just your child’s words. This includes both body language and tone and can help you really understand what they are trying to say. By tuning in to what your child’s body language is saying and responding to non-verbal messages, you can help them express their feelings and encourage further conversation. For example; “You’re very quiet this morning. Did you see something that is making you feel sad or confused?”.
- Ensure your child always feels listened too. When your child has something important say, or has strong feelings or a problem, it is important for them to feel that you are really listening. Take time out of what you are doing, sit down with your child, and offer encouraging gestures during the conversation, for example, “That does sound confusing, go on…” This will show your child that what they have to say is important to you and that you understand.
- Always work together to solve problems. When it comes to crisis situations, this may not always be easy, but I saw somewhere recently something I thought was a great idea – help your children look for the ‘helpers’ in any image or video of a crisis. If your child can see the ‘helpers’, that may offer hope and reassurance that those that need help are receiving it.
Of course, establishing strong communication channels is the first step when it comes to helping your child understand how they are feeling. By openly talking about all feelings, including your own, you can help your child build a vocabulary that will help them be more expressive.
We all feel sad, anxious, or upset when a bushfire is burning, but children, particularly those working on their communication and language skills, may not have the words or understanding to truly describe how they are feeling or even express those feelings appropriately. By helping your child name their feeling, you are giving them a great sense of control and understanding.
As speech pathologists, helping children identify and name their feelings is a big part of our everyday, and we have pulled together a few key tips to help you do this at home:
- Take notice when your child is feeling sad, scared, anxious, angry and so on as this will help you to better understand how they present these emotions.
- As mentioned above, encourage your child to talk about what is troubling them, but pay special attention to their feelings.
- Name their emotions and feelings for them. When they are talking about something that is troubling them, ask them if it makes them feel sad, worried, frightened, but ensure you use words that they will understand.
- Help your child to understand that it is normal to feel all kinds of emotions, particularly those associated with a crisis like fear, sadness, anger. And it is important to help your child express that feeling appropriately and even just ‘sit’ with the feeling for a moment.
- Encourage your child to do something that makes them feel better. This could be as simple as a walk, a play at their favourite park, or maybe doing something nice for someone else – anything that will help them feel better.
- Remember that our actions as parents can have a big impact, so even though you may be feeling distressed, worried and anxious yourself, make sure you communicate these feelings appropriately, talk about how you are feeling, and offer your child an explanation, for example; “Mummy is feeling upset today because of the bushfires, but I will feel better soon. We all have challenging times and that is ok.”
While the Australian bushfire crisis has been devastating, a supportive home and family, together with good communication, can help your child gain a better understanding of what is happening and how they feel about it. After all, we are all experiencing strong feelings at the moment, so let’s work together to understand, re-build and grow.