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Coping with natural disasters

After the smoke clears…

 By Dr Catherine Lee

Wildfires shift according to the winds and can grow huge − damaging and destroying communities. Those in the path must be ready to evacuate, move to temporary shelter, and wait for news. Returning after an evacuation can involve lengthy renovations and rebuilding, frustrating insurance claims, and the daunting prospect of rebuilding a life that’s been so disrupted.

Wildfires can cause heartbreak at the loss of a home and cherished possessions; at a minimum, they involve disrupted routines and plans put on hold. During a wildfire, countless Albertans who are not directly in the path of the fires may be vigilant and ready to help, even putting themselves at risk to help others. Those living far from the fires can be affected by drifting smoke and their concern for loved ones in the path.

If this were a once-in-a-lifetime weather-related disaster, it would be easier to face the task of getting back on track. Sadly, for some people, the effects of each disaster are cumulative and can cascade into a cycle of vigilance, bad memories, and weariness. This means even those far away from the fire can be disrupted by memories and distress about previous fires they experienced.

How do natural disasters affect us?

Strong feelings are normal when disaster hits. No matter our age, we can all feel fear, loss, anger, and anxiety. Sometimes we’re good at putting our energies into handling the immediate crisis then find we’re tired, moody, and irritable when things have settled down a bit.

WHAT ABOUT CHILDREN AND TEENS?

Young people’s reactions to wildfires vary according to their age, the danger to which they were exposed, and their previous experiences with disasters. For better or for worse, they often take their cues from how the important adults in their lives react. They are attentive to, and affected by, their parents’ reactions. Immediately after a disaster such as a wildfire, children may slip back to behave as they did when they were younger. They may be much more reactive, clingier, and less cooperative, needing help with activities they usually handle on their own. It may be tougher for them to concentrate, and their sleep may be disturbed.

How can parents help?

The first step is looking after yourself. Try to keep up the basics − eating and sleeping. Make sure you have moments to take a break, even if it’s just to take a few deep breaths or to text a friend. The second is to be gentle towards yourself − to recognize that you’re allowed to make mistakes, be short-tempered, and have a tough time planning. If you make sure you are looking after yourself, you’ll be in in a good position to help your children by:

  • Trying to find a balance in seeking updates, so that you have the information you need but are not taking too much time absorbing and sharing upsetting stories.
  • Setting a good example in talking about feelings. It’s okay to briefly let your children know you are tired or worried. However, it’s not helpful to lean on your children as your primary support.
  • Attending to children’s feelings. Ask your child how they’re doing. Answer their questions honestly. (We learned during the COVID pandemic we can’t tell them when it’s going to be over or that it will never happen again, but we can tell them we’re doing all we can to keep them safe). Keep these conversations brief. You don’t need to make the feelings go away, but you can show that you understand. You sound sad that you’ll miss Leah’s party; I can see you’re frustrated that soccer is cancelled; You seem really worried about when we’ll get back to our house You sound sad that you’ll miss Leah’s party; I can see you’re frustrated that soccer is cancelled; You seem really worried about when we’ll get back to our house.
  • Maintaining family rules and expectations. Although it may be tempting to expect less of children during a crisis, young people feel more secure when you expect them to help, to be kind in expressing their feelings, to share with others, and deal constructively with their frustrations. When you notice your children doing this, be sure to let them know you appreciate it. By noticing and celebrating these ‘bounce-back’ moments when your child gets through a tough situation, you help them develop emotional resilience: you were brave to tell me how you’re feeling; it’s great to see you helping your sister; I love that you found a different activity….

How long does this go on?

For most adults and children, the extreme distress of immediate crisis tends to fade once they are able to get back to their normal routines. It does not go away completely and can be triggered or set off by images and stories of similar events, family events, and “anniversaries” of the crisis.

The healing power of routine

Natural disasters disrupt our daily routines. Routines provide children with a sense of stability: they know what to expect and what is expected of them. Lack of routine in life can increase anxiety and stress for the whole family. Although it may not be possible to keep things exactly the same as before the disaster, as soon as you can get into a pattern, you’ll help them relax and feel safer and more confident about the future. They will benefit from regular time with you, childcare or school, a variety of activities and calm bedtime rituals.

If you need extra support

We all need help at some times in our lives. If the suggestions here all seem just too hard or if family members’ distress is not fading after a few weeks, there are additional supports available.

Fear-Less Triple P is a program that takes a family approach to becoming emotionally resilient managing anxiety in ourselves and in our children. An online version is available at www.triplep-parenting.net.

Your local Family Resource Network (FRN) may offer the program in person or have other supports that might help you.