About 1,600 buildings, mostly homes, have been destroyed or damaged and about 80,000 people were forced to leave Fort McMurray after the area was hit by a wildfire. The fire in the northern Alberta community is leaving thousands of families reeling, while Canadians across the country watch the tragedy unfold.
Canadian kids – either touched directly by the natural disaster, or watching the events on television – could be confused and troubled by what they see.
“They could be feeling everything from being sad about losing their favourite things, being worried about a family pet or scared of what they could be going home to. It’s like a series of losses and a feeling of trying to make sense,” Ann Douglas, a parenting expert and author of Parenting Through the Storm, told Global News.
Kids whose families were forced out of their homes could have lost their prized possessions, they may not be at their usual school for weeks and they could be staying in evacuation centres, losing their routine and comforts of home.
“And they don’t have the same life experience we have as grown-ups who have had to deal with a sudden job loss or the death of a loved one. We have experience with resilience, but this is the first time something awful and scary could be happening to them,” Douglas said.
Whether your family has been displaced or you’re watching the aftermath of the wildfires, here’s how to talk to your kids about the tragedy in Fort McMurray.
If your family is part of the evacuations:
Validate your child’s emotions: Your child could be saying they’re scared, worried or stressed about their new surroundings. Douglas said parents need to tell their kids it’s OK to feel this way and that these feelings make sense.
Be patient with your kids. They could be weeping over a lost stuffed animal or upset that their high school prom got cancelled. While these matters seem trivial to an adult grappling with their own losses, to your kids, these possessions and events were their world.
Don’t minimize their losses or suggest they can simply be replaced, Douglas said. Empathize with them instead.
Let them know they’re safe: Your child has to be reminded and reassured that there is hope even in dire situations. Shift the conversation to how many Canadians have helped across the country with donations, opening up their homes to evacuees and volunteering to get supplies to those who need it most.
Relay information to your kids: At this point, there’s no way to shield them from the reality that they’ve seen.
“All you can do is mitigate the damage. Parents have to try their best – and it requires almost superhero strength – but try to present the situation as factually as possible,” Dr. Oren Amitay, a Toronto-based registered psychologist and Ryerson University instructor, said.
Answer your kids’ questions as calmly as possible. Be sensitive to your kids’ age, too – a four-year-old may not need to know that their entire community was lost, but that they’ll be staying in an evacuation centre for the upcoming week, they won’t be going to school and they will be with their parents, for example. At this age, kids’ worlds are centred on their parents and they may not need to know more.
Kids may wonder when it’s safe to go home. With some questions, it’s OK to say you don’t know but that you will keep them informed as more information trickles in. This will help appease them and stop their minds from wandering.
Give your kids control and routine: Talk to your kids about the next steps when your family is ready. Ask them where they’d like to move, who they’d like to live with or even what colour they’d like to paint their new room.
“Try to get the kids involved in some way so that they feel they have an impact on what comes next. There is some semblance of control and predictability. Having this discussion will help them so they don’t feel they’re a leaf being blown haphazardly,” Amitay said.
Try to maintain routine, too. If your child would get a bedtime story, stick to that pattern so he or she has some comforts from home when possible.
“You want to anchor their experiences in as many familiar routines as possible. It helps them to see that things are different but some things are the same,” Douglas said.
If your kids are watching the Fort McMurray wildfire damage unfold:
Monitor your family’s media intake: Try to have some control over how much news your household is consuming. Consider a child’s surroundings: his or her parents may be scrambling to call loved ones as television reports pour in with gruesome images on loop. Control what your kids are seeing and filter out any disturbing or frightening images.
This is especially the case if you have young children, Alyson Schafer, a psychotherapist, author and parenting expert explained. “Turn off the radio and television – read all your information online,” she said. “Even a toddler or baby who you think isn’t watching anything is seeing terrible facial expressions, dark smoke and they may be internalizing some of it,” she said.
Emphasize the rarity of the incident: Remind them that forest fires that destroy entire communities are incredibly rare and that if they’re at home watching, they are safe. Tell them your family has contingency plans should any natural disaster strike, such as having small provisions on hand, knowing that there are evacuation centres nearby, and texting each other immediately to make sure all family members are safe.
“Tell them you have a master plan otherwise they’ll feel they have to solve it on their own and it’s a big problem,” Douglas said.
Help them through the healing process: In order for us to overcome trauma, people tend to come together to show solidarity and make meaning of what’s happened. If holding a vigil, writing a letter or a card or saying a prayer at dinner helps your kids cope, it may ease them through the healing. “That is the processing part,” Schafer said. “See what really stirs your child,” she suggested.
Douglas said you could ask your kids if they want to donate to the Red Cross or even hold a small fundraiser to raise money to send to those in need in Fort McMurray.