A young girl wearing a mask looks on during a rally for climate action at Sydney Town Hall on December 11, 2019 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Jenny Evans/Getty Images)
A young girl wearing a mask looks on during a rally for climate action at Sydney Town Hall on December 11, 2019 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Jenny Evans/Getty Images)

ParentsJanuary 8, 2020

Emily Writes: How to help kids who are upset about the Australian bush fires

A young girl wearing a mask looks on during a rally for climate action at Sydney Town Hall on December 11, 2019 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Jenny Evans/Getty Images)
A young girl wearing a mask looks on during a rally for climate action at Sydney Town Hall on December 11, 2019 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Jenny Evans/Getty Images)

The scale of the horror in Australia right now can be hard for kids to process. Emily Writes explains what she’s been doing with her own sons to help them feel a little less afraid.

My sister and niece and nephews live in Sydney and my brother, uncles, and grandmother live in Queensland. I was born in a city that would one day go from a surfing paradise to a shit dump with theme parks. I then grew up in the stunning Northern Beaches. Yes, just like Home and Away.

One flat we lived in always had sand in the entrance and boards on the grass outside. Another featured a rock lizard that liked to hide in the toilet rolls. My father is a surfer, his brothers are surfers – surf culture was strong growing up. Boards, a bit of toxic masculinity, and a deep respect for the environment.

I don’t remember as much as I should about Australia. I remember Nippers Surf Lifesaving on a Sunday morning, my dad desperately trying to get me to surf then giving up when I showed zero coordination. I remember my little school that my nephews now attend – how there was a cockatoo that sat by the library that I’d read to. I remember the sea and the sky – so perfectly blue all the time – and I remember one bush fire coming near us, the result of an out of control back burning exercise, in the 14 years or so that I lived there.

I remember leaving the house not particularly alarmed. I remember my father with a hose – also not particularly alarmed. I remember us leaving. Going up to the bakery. And that’s about it. The fire was put out by fireys and it didn’t burn any of the houses on our street down or threaten the mall. It’s not a scarring memory.

People will tell you Australia has always burned but it’s just not true. It hasn’t burned like this.

It’s never been like this.

I went over to see my whānau at Christmas and I was heartbroken by my trip. My sister and nephews were almost used to the smoke, as horrific as it is. What can you do? They have to still go to the supermarket, to kindy, to school. Life goes on.

The smoke terrified my kids. Their eyes stung. The smell was awful. They were completely overwhelmed. Since returning home they ask constantly about their aunty and nephews. They want to know if the bush fires are over.

Is Aunty safe now? Are their cousins safe? Is it over?

It’s a hard question to answer. I tip-toe around it with my sister, trying not to say – Please come home! But this isn’t her home. Sydney is. And life goes on somehow.

The anxiety I feel for her safety and the safety of my precious niblings isn’t a patch on the anxiety she navigates daily with three children to protect from smoke and fear and potentially, a fire front that moves from regions to suburbs with barely any warning.

And yet she, like everyone else, has to just go on.

But anxiety is a beast that doesn’t really care if you’re here or there – so we must address our fears instead of minimising them. It’s valid to feel fear for your whānau, even for strangers. They’re our neighbours after all.

And if we feel worry and fear – chances are, our kids do too. What can we do to support our children here with their worries?

Here are some ideas I’ve been working on with my kids to help them process what’s going on in Australia.

Little can make a big difference

I have always tried to empower my kids to believe that even though they’re small they can make a big difference in the world. I encourage them to organise fundraising efforts instead of doing it for them or discouraging them. When we say every dollar counts, we mean it – so we should be particularly encouraging of children giving up their beloved pocket money.

My kids are doing extra jobs around the house to raise money for the fires and have talked about doing a clothes swap with their friends for koha. No matter how small, I encourage their efforts. A child giving $3.50 should matter as much as any other donation. It tells them that they’re helping. That they’re not helpless.

A dehydrated and injured Koala receives treatment at the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital in Port Macquarie on November 2, 2019, after its rescue from a bushfire that has ravaged an area of over 2,000 hectares (Photo by SAEED KHAN/AFP via Getty Images)

Get making

To encourage busy hands to comfort busy minds I’ve got the kids thinking about their skills and what they can make to support those in need right now. My eldest loves sewing so I have him sewing hanging joey pouches. Animal rescue groups are also in dire need of bat wraps, quilts and blankets. They need crocheters and knitters to make birds nests, blankets, joey pouch outers, and animal jumpers too. These are really tangible things kids can make. The groups where they are donated will post photos of animals in the wraps and pouches. It’s a great way to show kids there is something we can do to help animals.

Turn off the news

If you feel terrified watching the news, imagine what it’s like for a child. If you have kids over, turn off the radio and TV. Watch it after they’re in bed or on your phone. Children can’t process how big this is and the news is scary. Sometimes we want our children to see things to really understand them. Kids in Australia can’t turn away from this horror. Why would we willingly expose our children to that horror? What would it achieve? Australian parents would likely give anything to hide this awful reality from their little ones. We are so fortunate to be able to protect our kids from seeing the worst of it. Talk to your children about the bush fires – absolutely – but images can stay with children forever. And traumatising a child for their ‘education’ is messed up.

Keep the conversation open

Other kids might be talking about the fires with your children. They might hear things that aren’t true – it’s important you can clarify and support. My son somehow came to believe fire could cross water. They hear or interpret shit really weirdly. Be on guard. Sometimes I say to my son “Your face looks like you have a question” because he gets a look like he’s asleep with his eyes open whenever he’s concerned about something. Encourage questioning – make sure they know that no question is too stupid (we know kids ask stupid questions but bear with me). I’ve had the inane “What would fire look like in Minecraft?” eventually turn into “Will my cousins be burned if they hide under their beds?”. It’s heartbreaking to know your child is carrying around those worries. Be honest but be age appropriate.

Look to the helpers

One of my favourite people ever – Mr Fred Rogers – once said “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” I tell my kids this a lot and it seems to help. In my opinion, it’s not a message for adults though – I wrote about it here.

I don’t have all the answers but I think what’s helped my husband and me is trying to be as compassionate as possible toward the kids. I’m crying myself to sleep right now in sadness for my old country. Perspective is vital – it’s not us there. But grief and sadness and worry is valid. We must never become used to this.

This isn’t right and we can’t ever think it is.

Keep going!