Amid wildfires, widespread evacuations, emergency alerts, and much uncertainty, it has been a challenging week for Nova Scotians. 

For many, including children, the anxiety can persist long after wildfires have been extinguished. But what’s normal and when should you be concerned that your child or youth might be struggling in the aftermath of such an event? 

“After a fire, it will take time for communities to redevelop a sense of safety, security, and comfort,” notes an IWK Health Centre fact sheet about coping with an emergency or disaster. “Daily life will be significantly disrupted for whole communities for a potentially long period of time.”

The Halifax Examiner spoke with Holly Murphy, leader of the IWK’s trauma-informed care team, about what parents and guardians should know and what to watch for now and in the coming weeks and months. 

A woman with long blonde hair wearing glasses and a black shirt with a black jacket featuring white polka dots smiles at the camera.
Holly Murphy, advanced practice leader of trauma-informed care at the IWK Health Centre. Credit: Contributed

This conversation has been edited for length and brevity. 

Halifax Examiner (HE): Can you talk about the impacts of a wildfire on children and about the distress they may experience?

Holly Murphy (HM): There’s definitely a wide range of emotions and feelings that can happen. Everything is normal at this point. It’s normal for any child or adult to have a reaction of fear or sadness or to be irritable or angry because this is happening. 

I think the first thing is to normalize that that is a normal reaction. It’s only really when these kinds of feelings and maybe behaviours persist over time that it will be looked at. If it’s more severe and persisting and not going way over time, we would look at it from more of a mental health and addictions perspective, 

But really at this stage it is normal. We’re just monitoring. The main thing I would say for caregivers is that we’re looking at how to spend time with our children. How do we help them to feel safe? That’s really what it’s all about. How do we create that safety within their environment to the best degree that we can?

HE: What are some ways parents and guardians can do that?

HM:  Thinking about how we maintain those normal routines. If people are displaced, that’s hard to do. But looking at how we have those normal routines. Even at bedtime, if we’re reading a story to a child. Trying to maintain as much of the normalcy as possible. Children really thrive on that predictability, stability, routine of things. If we can do that to whatever degree we can, that’s really helpful. There’s a lot of things that we can’t control, right? This is an emergency situation that we can’t control. We can’t control the fire, we can’t control these things that are happening. 

But what can we control in our situation that can help with that stability for children? That’s really important and then that helps them feel safe. And if they don’t feel safe, creating that space to have those conversations. Ask them how they’re feeling about it. ‘What would help you feel safe?’ Or if they say ‘I’m feeling scared.’ Well, OK. What would help you to feel better?

HE: How do you best navigate providing difficult/distressing information?

HM: Asking yourself what information do they need to know. They may not have the correct information or there may be worries they have that as adults, we can help address. Depending on if it’s a five year old or a 15 year old, that may look differently. We may obviously provide more information to a 15 year old versus a five year old. But really looking at what is pertinent information for them to know and to help them to feel safe. 

HE: Generally what’s the best way to approach conversations with younger children versus older children?

HM: With the younger children, determining what they know. If we’re thinking about a child that’s five years old who lives outside of our area of fires, they may not know anything. And that’s OK with that age. So how much information would we provide a child that’s really young that maybe doesn’t need to know to add to the stress. So think about are we actually mentioning it to them? Do we need to? 

We obviously need to if we’re in these communities, if we’re someone that has been evacuated or impacted by the fire. Again, it’s about really just sitting there with them, seeing what they know, depending on their level of impact. You know your child best and how to approach things, how much information you need to tell them. Be clear in the information, really truthful information. Make sure that we’re telling the truth, being transparent as much as we can with the information that we have, and just being honest and really framing it: ‘This is happening, but also now we’re safe’ or ‘We’re going to be safe,’ or ‘This is our plan.’ Those safety messages, just reassuring them that it’s OK or it isn’t OK but it’s going to be OK. If we can say that, of course. That’s the other thing. You don’t want to be saying something that isn’t true or that we can’t follow through on.

When we think about our youth, they may not want to be talking to the adults as much as we might hope they would. So, they may also be confiding in peers. Just having those conversations is important too about what information is factual, checking in with them that they have factual information. 

At any age it is really just seeing what your child or youth knows, what do they want to know. Having those open and honest conversations at the level that they’re able to take in developmentally. Really checking in and not presuming, saying, ‘You know, it sounds like this is making you sad. Is that the case?’ They may say, yeah I’m really sad or I’m really angry or really whatever. It’s just going from there. And also just knowing that sometimes the reactions may look very different too. Some kids maybe start to be really irritable, some maybe start to withdraw. We may see different kinds of reactions from different children and youth. At this point it’s how they’re coping and adapting to what’s happening. 

HE: What do most want parents and guardians to know about this challenging time when it comes to their children?

HM: To care for yourself first. It’s really important for us to acknowledge we have to be doing well in order to care for others and it’s not selfish to take care of yourself. There are going to be times throughout this that you need to take care of yourself. So please do that and don’t feel any guilt about that at all because it’s really important. 

Then in taking care of your children, you know your children best. You know what works for them and you know what they need. Be really listening to that and that will help them feel safe and feel that they have hope into the future. It’s just really creating that sense of safety for everyone and that open communication dialogue. That will definitely help get them through this

HE: What are some tips for helping reduce their anxiety around all of this, because it can be frightening.

HM: It definitely can be frightening. I think that is the first thing. Acknowledging as adults, saying ‘This is something that is scary. That scared me when it happened, when we had to evacuate.’ Normalizing that it’s a normal response at this point to feel those things. And then thinking about what helps your child in other situations when they’re anxious. Favourite activities they like to do. Are they somebody who likes to talk things through? Is it somebody who likes to be out in nature, somebody who likes to read a book or play video games or play basketball, or whatever. 

What are their regular coping strategies? What coping strategies did they use that were effective for them before this ever happened? Thinking about what’s in your toolbox that has helped your child or youth before. It may work and it may not, but at least it’s somewhere to start. If children feel they have an adult or caregiver that is supportive and is helping to keep them safe, that means everything. It creates that sense of safety for people.

For everybody — children, youth, and the adults — just taking a break from social media so they’re not taking all that in all the time. That can add to the stress as well. We need to be informed. But it’s a balance of having to be informed but maybe not totally in it 24/7. Thinking about how to balance that out.

Definitely before bedtime, we know that children often generally get into that mind frame of worries and what’s happening. So, if we can limit social media/online activities before bedtime, we decrease that intake of the things that are happening. Reading a book, talking about something else they really like, their favourite interests, those kind of things. That helps to regulate before bed so they’re not revved up, thinking about all their worries and things that are happening as then they may not fall asleep or they may have difficulty or wake up through the night. The more that we can help decrease any screen time, really, before bed generally is really good because it helps us get into that sleep mode, helps us get some sleep.

HE: What should parents be looking for that might indicate there’s a problem beyond those normal reactions to this kind of situation?

HM: Caregivers know their children and youth best. We know when something’s off. We know if our child is not sleeping well now or has increased worries or their eating patterns are different or they’re a bit more irritable. Just keep monitoring that. Be present with them, playing or doing activities that they like to do. Trying to keep that normalcy, being aware. Having that conversation: ‘I notice that you said last night you didn’t sleep well. Is there anything on your mind or anything you want to talk about?’ Just keeping those lines of communication open is really important. 

HE: Is it safe to assume that for some children anxiety may present itself down the road?

HM: A lot of times things are going to come up at varying times. Now we’re very much in it. But in the weeks and months to come, conversations may happen and things may still come up. Just creating that safety to be open, to have them now or later or whenever they’re needed, is important. 

HE: You pointed out that there could be long-term impacts in terms of anxiety. So these conversations are really important to be thinking about right now.

HM: Yes. Definitely. The thing is to monitor this because we can have changes in eating, sleeping, all these kinds of things. But if that tends to persist over the next few weeks or months and so on and we see different impacts into their, say, schooling or friendships or interests or those kinds of things, that’s something to really monitor. 

And there’s always help out there. We definitely have our central intake line. If people need help, there’s Kids Help Phone. Of course, emergency if it’s obviously an immediate kind of need that they need help. If you need extra support, there’s definitely supports out there. Don’t hesitate to reach out or if you have any questions about that as time goes on as well. So that’s really important too, to make sure people know that there is help out there. And just to know right now, it’s a pretty normal reaction to a not very normal event that happened. It takes time, right? It takes time.

HE: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

HM: I already highlighted it, but it is really just that point that most children will be able to cope and adapt with the support, whether it’s their caregivers, their teachers, or whoever those supportive adults are in their life. And if they continue to have difficulty, to please reach out and know that there’s help out there. 

Click here to visit our Nova Scotia wildfires resource page.

Yvette d’Entremont is a bilingual (English/French) journalist and editor who enjoys covering health, science, research, and education.

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