How to Help Your Family Respond to a National Tragedy

(Please note: This blog post is written to help families who are not in any immediate danger.)

Australian is in the middle of a bushfire disaster at the moment. So far, over 22 people have died, 150 homes have been destroyed, and over 6 million hectares burnt, as well as the impact on the wildlife and farm animals that have been killed and burnt. The television and radio stations are full of the horrific scenes and news. The images and posts are prolific on social media.

When you are not in any immediate danger yourself but are confronted with a tragedy like this, there are a few things, as a family, it is good to be aware of.

Things to keep in mind:

  1. You and your children can experience trauma by being exposed to reports and images of the fires. The trauma from the fires doesn’t just affect those who have been touched physically by the fires. It also impacts those who have witnessed the impact emotionally. Seeing images on television and hearing reports of the fires can also cause trauma.
  2. You and/or your children can start to feel helpless.

Some signs to be aware of that it is affecting you and/or your children include:

  1. A fascination with wanting to see and hear the latest news about the bush fires.
  2. Trouble sleeping. Night terrors in toddlers/infants can be a sign that they have been exposed to trauma, whether real or perceived.
  3. Abnormal or irrational behaviour. Going through your wardrobe and finding clothes to donate is a warning sign. Every authority and group have stated clearly that they do not want clothes. Crying or getting angry for ‘no apparent reason’ or a disinterest in life and normal activities are warning signs. Blaming someone, or the government, for the fires is not appropriate.
  4. Children becoming more ‘clingy’ than usual or hesitant to leave their parent.

If you don’t live in an area that is under threat from the bush fires, look at some strategies to put into place to lessen the impact on your family.

Strategies to put into place to lessen the impact include:

  1. Limit visual and sound exposure to the reports. Turn off your television. Do not let your children see images of the fires.
  2. Talk appropriately about it as a family. Answer, to the best of your ability, your children’s questions.
  3. Model appropriate behaviour. Limit social media access about the fires. Don’t blame the government. Talk appropriately about the situation.
  4. Brainstorm ways you can help as a family. (See below for some suggestions)
  5. Intentionally plan to have fun. Find ways to laugh. Play games. Spend time with your children. Give extra hugs. Read books together. If you are in an area not smoke affected like we are at the moment, get outside and do some activity eg go for a bike ride.
  6. Keep routines as normal as possible. This provides structure and reassurance for children.
  7. Discuss and prepare your own emergency supplies for a disaster. Kids can feel that they have more control over a situation if they have helped prepare for an emergency that may occur.

What we can do to help:
The immediate question for my family and I is “What can we do to help?”. This is the time that you can address any feelings of helplessness by doing something practical to help. Doing something physically to raise money, instead of just transferring money from your bank account, makes it far more personal for your children and lessens the traumatic impact on them as they have been able to contribute. Combating feeling helpless for kids is essential in the coping strategy of lessening the impact of the bushfires.

Bear in mind that doing things with others or in community helps. Try not to be a ‘Lone Ranger’ as that can feed negative emotions. As parents, chat about how you could talk to your work colleagues or mum’s group or school community about what the response as a group could be. Could the teenagers babysit whilst the mothers have a morning tea with all funds going to a bushfire appeal?

Donating Cash:

Donating cash is the best & most effective resource in situations like this. After the fires on Black Saturday in Victoria, the Government spent millions on storage for donated goods and clothing. Imagine if that money could have been spent on helping people instead of storage. A similar situation occurred in Tasmania with the Dunalley fires. The communities become so inundated with second-hand clothes and donated goods that the community couldn’t help where it was most needed and in the manner most required as their resources were taken up with sorting donated clothes and goods. A lot of donated goods and clothing ends up becoming land fill.

Giving cash also gives people a choice. People whose homes have been destroyed don’t have a choice. Their immediate choices have been taken away. Today they are homeless because their house has burnt down. They don’t have a choice where they will sleep tonight, what they will eat, what they will wear. It is far more effective to give them cash to buy clothes that will fit them and clothes that they like. It gives them back their choice.

Some suggestions for helping as a family:   

  1. Buy some goods that have been requested and donate to an appropriate charity. Back 2 Basics Melbourne (in Narre Warren) need food items (they list what is needed on their Facebook page eg lollies, small tins tuna, small packets chips, muesli cars, small juice packs etc) and volunteers most days to pack snack bags for the firefighters. This is a great way you can help as a family. Check out your local community volunteer support groups to find what is needed and how you and your children can assist.
  2. Assess what skills you have as a family. A teenager in our area who has a skill in playing a musical instrument has been busking and all money going to a bushfire appeal. A family with two boys decided that they would hold a lemonade & lolly stand. The community rallied around them and donated lemons and lollies. They raised over $1,500 in less than 4 hours.
  3. Learn to crochet or knit or sew and make animal pouches for the rescued injured wildlife. There are patterns available on different groups websites.
  4. Once school returns, look at how your school could partner with a school in an area that was affected by the fires.
  5. Pray as a family. Draw pictures of your prayers.
  6. Write thank you letters to the local Fire Brigade and take snacks to them when they return home.
  7. Select one action you could do as a family so that you don’t become overwhelmed. Try and do that action as soon as you can and not leave it for several months.

I would love to hear what you and your family are doing to assist those who have been affected by the bush fires. Please feel free to comment.

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