“What are you doing?” I texted my 13-year-old who was staying over at his grandparents.
“Just sitting here watching Australia burn,” came the blunt response.
Like many of their generation, his grandparents like to mainline commercial TV news and talk radio, sometimes at the same time, whereas we stream most things and have more control over what the kids see.
And as city dwellers on a curated diet of Netflix we had not talked to the kids about the fires very much, despite the fact that, for the first time, both my wife and I had known people directly affected by this intense season. But after driving from Melbourne to Sydney, past plumes of smoke in the Highlands, and now seeing the disaster unfold on a constant feed of TV news it was probably time for a chat.
Plan International Australia , the charity for girls’ equality, has prepared a guide to talking about the out-of-control fires that caused such anxiety earlier in the year because the danger is far from over despite some welcome respite in the past couple of weeks.
There is no wrong way to react
The Plan International Australia guide estimated that between 7-45 per cent of kids are likely to suffer depression or anxiety about the fires, Plan guide co-author and child psychologist Karen Young says there is a wide range of ways that kids can react.
“What’s really important is there is no wrong way for kids to react, so kids might say things like they are ‘watching Australia burn’ and they are just being honest,” Young says. “Some kids will be angry or they will feel guilty or sad for the people who have lost things. There is no abnormal response; there is no wrong way to
After chatting to our teenager it turns out that he and his friends had been sharing a lot about what was going on via WhatsApp, so he was well aware of the scale of the fires without the help of the news. He had also noted that his friends varied wildly from those who seemed distressed by the situation and others who were making jokes about it.
Our ten-year-old however does not yet have a phone but he had recently been asking that we stop watching the limited news we did look at. “The news is one of the scariest things on TV,” says Young. “Because it is real and with a lot of it there is no context.”
Sitting down with both of them for the first time we discussed what it was that upset them most and they both had different triggers. For my eldest it was concern for friends and family, and that the fires might reach us. The younger one, a fierce animal lover, was most upset by the high toll of the wildlife and asked what was being done to help them.
In response I had volunteered to be a transporter for Wildlife Victoria and we talked about what that might entail and about the unlikelihood of fires reaching our part of the inner city.
Let kids use anxiety as it was intended
A salient point from child psychologist Karen Young was that modern anxiety is always presented negatively but it has a strong evolutionary function.
“Anxiety is there to give us the energy for action so it actually has an important job to do,” says Young. “So when kids get anxious when they have seen these images the best thing to do is to give them somewhere to put that energy.”
My eldest is organising a bake sale with his mate with profits to go to the firefighters and my youngest wants to tag along if I get the call up for a wildlife rescue. Young also suggests they can write letters, research what can be done to prepare for next year and to “convert what can feel like helplessness into helpfulness”.
We have also made a point of curating our own news with a heavier emphasis on the good that is being done, on the heroics and the positivity – a technique the TV news channels might want to look at, not just with the bushfires.
But above all the Plan International Australia’s approach is to make sure kids know they are not alone.
“Kids need to know that are safe,” says Young. “They need to know they can talk about if they want to, but you don’t want to push it. They need to know that we get it and that we are with them whatever their concerns may be.”
We know kids are sponges and even those not at the forefront of this national emergency are likely soaking up some negativity and some fear around the issue of out-of-control bushfires and it is our job as parents to watch and act if we have any concerns.