10 Tips for Talking to Kids About Wildfires


In the summer of 2013, a natural disaster hit close to home for Colorado's children -- and many kids have anxiety and questions about the wildfires near the Royal Gorge and Black Forest areas. Children's Hospital Colorado's senior psychologist Jeffrey I. Dolgan, P.h.D, provides 10 tips parents can keep in mind when talking to their children about the natural disaster.

  1. Recognize that kids (about six years old and older), based on their exposure, could have big worries about this, especially if there's something about the natural disaster that touches on them.
  2. Limit kids' exposure to the media. Parents may want to follow TV coverage, and local news trucks and helicopters are around, which can lead to repeat consumption of tragic stories and images. This can be harmful. Parents should think about viewing coverage when children are not present.
  3. Develop and ensure an open environment. For example, use sentences like, "You sound worried," or "You look like you could be worried about __." If the conversation doesn't go anywhere, that's fine. Parents should be honest in terms of their feelings, too; it's okay to say, "This is worrisome." Use words appropriate for a child's age.
  4. Make this a teaching moment. Talk to your children about why it's important to prepare and why we have agencies in place to help. Try to answer their questions about how wildfires can happen. Talk about insurance companies and how, "If we pay them a little bit every year we don't have to worry so much about not having a house if a fire destroys it."
  5. Reassure. Children need to understand that, if evacuated, they won't starve and relatives or agencies will take care of them. The message should be "safety first." Parents can say, "We're going to stay safe. We can get another house; we can't get another you." Read about how to help your children stay calm during a natural disaster.
  6. Stay calm and think ahead. Imagine that you received the call to evacuate: what would you take? You can replace a house, but other things you cannot. Make a list of the things you can't replace and know where they are if you need to grab them quickly. Pack a suitcase ahead of time, if necessary.
  7. Breathe deeply from the diaphragm in adrenaline-filled moments.
  8. Keep things as normal as possible.
  9. Let the kids participate. Give each child a backpack and explain to them that they can bring anything that is in it. Keith Schemper, M.A. (International Disaster Psychology), mental health counselor in Children's Colorado's Neuropsychiatric Special Care Program gave this advice: "Parents can give their child some kind of 'helper role' in the midst of the chaos. Having a 'job' can help keep thoughts from imposing fear and worry. This job could be to update others on the status of the weather, to have a volunteer role in the shelter or to plan the next family vacation."
  10. If experiencing a loss, tell your kids how you depend on other people's kindness. Nobody's out in the cold, all alone. If there is a loss, there will be people to help and life will go on. Adds Schemper: "In dealing with loss and grief, it is important to let children ask questions and to acknowledge their questions and validate their emotions. Parents need to be careful not to underestimate the loss their children are experiencing.'"