Fighting fire anxiety

Reading Time: 5 minutes
Firefighters respond as flames lick the edge of Deacon Gary Stone’s property at Clagiraba in the Gold Coast hinterland.

In the past week, NSW has seen some of the worst bushfires in recorded history. The NSW Rural Firefighting Service has warned us that with a long, hot summer, the worst is yet to come.

While we all know fires aren’t uncommon, they’re part of living in Australia. They are something we’ve all come to expect and prepare for – but that doesn’t make it any easier to deal with when they do.

In addition to being physically destructive, fires are mentally tough to deal with.

In a part of the world blessed to be free from the threat of most natural disasters, our kids live in a pleasant bliss most of the year, so when big fires do happen, they can have a devastating toll on children.

In the wake of the recent fires, and in anticipation of the continuing threat, we spoke to University of Melbourne Professor Harriet Hiscock, pediatrician and group leader, director and professional fellow working at the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute and the Royal Children’s Hospital, about the best way to support young people.

What sort of effect does a major weather incident like the catastrophic conditions experienced in NSW last week have on young people?

Effects can range from mild (your child asking some questions about the event but generally getting on with their life), through to being upset and distressed which may be expressed in several ways. Children’s responses will depend on their age.

For example:

  • young children – regression, clinging, sleep difficulties
  • older children – bravado, withdrawal, emotional problems, behavioural problems, sleep difficulties
  • adolescents – acting out, hyper-arousal, depression, drug use, sleep difficulties.

Children may be “good” early after a disaster but display these signs and symptoms some months later when they feel secure again.

A minority of children may go on to develop symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, expressed as persistent problems with:

  • high arousal, sleep difficulties, irritability, lack of concentration
  • numbing, avoidance, withdrawal
  • re-experiencing the event, including some repetitive play acting out the event
  • developmental regression.
Effects can range from mild through to being upset and distressed which may be expressed in several ways. Photo: 123rf.com
Effects can range from mild through to being upset and distressed which may be expressed in several ways. Photo: 123rf.com

How can you mentally prepare your child for an event like this?

Reassuring them (if appropriate) that they are safe and that everyone (firefighters, local communities etc.) will do their best to stop the fires.

Once something like this starts what’s the best way to talk to them about it?

Stick to the facts but do not go into graphic details as this may further upset your child. Avoid graphic vision e.g. on television or in newspapers. Ask them if they have any questions or fears about the fires. Sometimes, they imagine things that you have not thought of (e.g. your house will burn even though the fire is far away) and it’s important to be able to reassure them about any unfounded fears.

Aim to talk about the event during the day, not just before bedtime when it might stop a child getting to sleep.

What are some of the signs displayed by a young person suffering serious anxiety?

Again this will depend on age (see response to first question) but anything from recurrent and persistent tummy pains or headaches where a physical cause cannot be found, sleeping difficulties, loss of concentration, irritability and aggression. Generally, these signs and symptoms may last a few weeks after a traumatic event but if it is serious anxiety, the signs and symptoms will persist. Serious anxiety (as opposed to a less intense reaction) will stop a child or young person being able to do the things they would normally enjoy e.g. playing with friends, going to school, going on social outings etc.

Is it possible they won’t show signs immediately, and start behaving oddly a few weeks later?

Yes. This tends to occur when things are returning to normal and the child feels a sense of security which then allows them to express – and hopefully process – their feelings.

When should you get professional help for your child and what sort of help should you look for?

When the signs and symptoms persist beyond 3-4 weeks, if your child asks for help and you feel you cannot reassure them, or if you are worried about their mental health at any time.

Help can be provided by qualified counsellors, psychologists, general practitioners, child and adolescent psychiatrists (for more severe problems) and paediatricians.

Serious anxiety will stop a child or young person being able to do the things they would normally enjoy e.g. playing with friends, going to school, going on social outings etc. PHOTO: Freepik
Serious anxiety will stop a child or young person being able to do the things they would normally enjoy e.g. playing with friends, going to school, going on social outings etc. PHOTO: Freepik

How do you get someone reputable?

Ask your GP for a referral or your child’s school welfare department. When seeking to make an appointment to see someone, ask if this is an area of expertise and if they have had any training or experience in helping children following a disaster. However, the most important thing is to find a person your child can connect with and talk to. This can involve a bit of trial and error but ask other families, your child’s school and health professionals such as GPs for recommendations.

Beyond Blue provides links to the different professionals who may be able to help, see: https://www.beyondblue.org.au/get-support/find-a-professional

How can you make an event like this easier to deal with?

It’s very important to stick to the daily routines (kinder, school etc.) as this will bring a sense of security and normalcy for your child. Avoid any graphic footage of the event. As a parent, it is also important that you look after yourself. It’s ok to spend some time with friends and family, exercise, take time out for you etc.

Your child’s mental health and recovery will be supported by a parent whose own mental health is good.

Of interest, some research has shown that following the 2010 and 2011 Christchurch earthquakes in New Zealand, children’s mental health at a population level either remained unchanged (parent report) or improved (teacher report). This was thought to be due in part to the community pulling together and supporting each other in a time of crisis.

Beyond Blue also has some links to websites that can help you foster resilience in your child after loss and grief – an important step in adjusting.

See: https://healthyfamilies.beyondblue.org.au/healthy-homes/loss-and-grief

As a general rule, what are some things to remember?

Be loving and supportive, get back into the routine as soon as practicable, listen to and respond to any questions they may have but keep your answer simple and reassuring if possible, model problem solving to build resilience, avoid ongoing exposure to graphic details of the event, and look after your own mental health.