A lot of children are feeling anxious right now because of the fires all over California. As parents, it can be hard to know what to say to help your child feel better, especially if you are feeling anxious too.

Here are some things to keep in mind when talking to your child about the fires (and other scary stuff as well).

1. Listen for Specific Fears

The first step is figuring out exactly what is making your child scared. Being able to address specific fears will help you be more comforting.

You can ask something like this: “You seem scared about the fire, what are you worried will happen?” You might be surprised! Maybe you are worried about evacuating and saving the house, but your child is more worried about what will happen to the neighbor’s cat or how they are going to do school.

2. Talk through Big Feelings

Sometimes we all just need to talk it out to feel better. Let your child know that you hear them and it is ok to have those feelings. Before giving reassurance, repeat what you heard them say.

For example: “Yeah it is scary to have the fires so close” or “ I know you feel worried that our house might burn down. That is a scary thought.” This communicates to your child that it is ok to talk about things when they get scared.

3. Provide Age-Appropriate information

Children do not need all of the information about the fire. What will be most helpful for your child is information that is directly relevant to them and helps them understand next steps.

For example: “If fires get too close, we are going to grandma’s house” or “let’s pack your bags in case we need to leave for a few nights.” Younger children just need to know what will happen today, maybe tomorrow. Older children may want to know more about the next week or more details about the fire. 

Paying attention to your child’s questions will help you key in to what they need to know in this moment to feel safe.  Avoid quick reassurances like “its going to be ok” or “you don’t need to worry” in response to questions.

4. Reduce Exposure to the News

The news can increase anxiety for children. Even if they are in another room or do not seem to be paying attention, children often pick up on the scary tone or overhear things out of context. They may not seem scared in the moment, but may think about it later when they are trying to go to sleep or when something else scares them. Reducing exposure to the news can help our child feel calmer about the fires.

As parents, it is ok to be anxious and worried as well. You do not have to conquer all your fears in order to help your child feel calmer. Instead, focus on what your child needs to hear in order to feel secure, be willing to talk about their fears (even the ones that seem unimportant) and reduce information that is unnecessarily stressful for your child. By supporting them through the big emotions and letting them know the plan to help them stay safe, you are communicating that you are bigger than their fears. Your child will feel a lot calmer when you take these steps to help them feel emotionally and physically safe. And thankfully, a little goes a long way!

Melissa Winfield, PsyD
Melissa Winfield, PsyD

I help children, teenagers and parents find hope and resilience through the tough times.