Helping Children During and After the Fires

      Like most people in this country, I have been glued to the television coverage of the fires raging through San Diego, Orange County, Los Angeles, etc.  Unlike many of you, I just need to look out my kitchen window to see and smell the eerie smoky brown sky that hangs over my neighborhood.  From this vantage point I can understand the fear and shock that is consuming the millions who are experiencing up close and very personally the ravages of Mother Nature.  
      Much of the California coastline is burning.  Almost one million people have been evacuated and over one thousand homes and some communities have been burned to the ground.  An unknown number of people have died and scores have been injured; mostly firefighters.
      People are living out of their cars, in the homes of friends, relatives or gracious strangers; hotels are crammed, and thousands are in stadiums.  What is remarkable about this disaster is how well San Diego has handled this.  The local government got right into gear with evacuations, physical support and fire-fighting; the people, although devastated, have been cooperative, positive, virtually non-complaining, non-violent, and mutually supportive.  Charitable and supportive donations from people far and wide have been administered successfully.  No hysteria, blaming, or violence.  Listening to the stories of gratitude in the midst of hardship has been inspiring.
      Nonetheless, it is important to consider the longer term emotional and psychological issues resulting from this disaster, the largest in California’s history.  My family survived a house-fire in the early ’90′s.  A faulty electrical connection in a socket sent a spark across the room onto a bed and in mere seconds the entire room was ablaze.  I tried to put the fire out and realized that the fumes and smoke were even more dangerous.  I called the Fire Department immediately, grabbed my wallet and my son and left the house.  Between the flames and the efforts of the Fire Department, our house was totaled but without damage to our neighbors.
      We lost just about everything.  Our first reaction was shock.  It was difficult to absorb being in a home one moment, and standing in front of a burning building in the next.
      For the most part, the people involved in the California fires have whole neighborhoods that are gone and don’t seem to have the option of “continuing with life.”  Their stresses, grief, and fears will need to be addressed.  Most people are ultimately quite resilient, and after months of reasonable, normal hyper-emotional reactions, get back into life without long-lasting impact.
      Children are more vulnerable to these disasters and special attention needs to be paid to their well-being.  The more up-front and personal the exposure to the disaster, the greater the post-disaster impact will be.  The loss of a home and destruction of a community are obviously high-distress events leading to grief and trauma.
      Children under the age of 2 have little real understanding of what has happened and don’t have life experiences to tap into to give them a sense of immediate or future safety.  They pretty much are experiencing sensory overload as the sights, sounds, smells stay imprinted in their young minds and may be activated in the future.  Also, children of this age are not equipped to discuss their fears.  It is very important that small children not be separated from their parents during these disasters.  The parents are the ultimate security and measure by which they will react; if parents stay calm, children feel more reassured.
      Children up to age five may start regressing in their behavior because of their confusion and fear.  They may have nightmares, stop eating and sleeping, and report stomach aches which are really a sign of distress.
      To assist young children:
1.  Give verbal reassurance and physical comfort
2.  Try to keep eating and sleeping routines intact
3.  Avoid being separated from them because of the comfort they need from
  you and because they fear abandonment.
4.  Let them talk and talk and talk and talk about what they feel, especially
 about losing pets, their toys, etc.
5. Try to minimize their exposure to images of fires on television and any other
  disturbing input.
6. Get them playing — this will be good for them and for you!
     School age children can become obsessed with their fears over these events.  This would be a good time for you not to be so concerned with your expectations of proper behavior and performance in school (if they have access) and with you.  However, while it is important for you to let them talk again and again about the disaster and their opinions and feelings, you should also set some gentle limits on “acting-out” behaviors of anger, and so forth.  It might be good to say something like, “You know, it is quite reasonable for all of us to be angry or feeling kind of crazy over what’s happened.  Let’s keep ‘showing it’ to five minutes each hour or so, then the rest of the time we can make plans, take a walk, figure out meals, play a game, sing a song, help somebody else…”
      Allow school-aged children to participate in actions geared to “take care of immediate business.”  That way they have a sense of power in a seemingly powerless situation and feel useful – which is a positive and rewarding experience.
      Some children may be slow to show distress, taking weeks or months for signs or symptoms of their distress to appear.  Don’t push for “feelings” to be expressed; instead, be watchful of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) depression: persistent sad or irritable mood, loss of interest in activities once enjoyed,  a significant change in appetite or body weight, difficulty sleeping or oversleeping, loss of energy, feelings of worthlessness or inappropriate guilt, difficulty concentration and/or recurrent thoughts of death or suicide.
      Five or more of these symptoms over several weeks may indicate a need for professional intervention.
      Remember, supportive parents, friends, family members, teachers, and other adults make all the difference in the ability of children to cope with disaster.
      For more information, click on: “Helping Children Handle Disaster-Related Anxiety – National Mental Health Association

To hear Dr. Laura in an on-air interview with KFI-AM regarding this issue, click here