When the world is on fire: Talking to your little one about a crisis

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It’s all over the news, all over our feeds and in our hearts in the quiet of the day. Last night, I sat down with Ella Grace, my four-year-old, as she watched me watch a video on the bushfires in Australia. Why, mama? What is it? How did it happen? Quiet, pensive, scared.

The underlying question is: will this happen to us too? As a mama and a Child & Family Development Specialist I approached what is happening through my PLEASE tool: Prepare, Listen, Empathise, Acknowledge, Sit, Empower.

Prepare: take a breath together

If they’ve caught some images or heard people talking about it, they are likely in their red zone of panic, so breathing together will prepare both of you for the conversation.

Preparing begins by setting the tone – that your little one is safe, that we are safe. That they can ask you anything and that you will be honest – nothing is more terrifying and confusing than not knowing. The little ones are very perceptive and have likely heard hushed conversations or caught the news.

The response you can give depends on how much information they can handle and it varies with each child regardless of age. The key point is just to be honest about the facts, about death, about the wildlife getting hurt, people losing their homes. It’s a hard conversation but cushioned with love and respect helps them understand the crisis and stretches their viewpoint.

It might be helpful to show them on a globe where Australia is and some vetted images if you are comfortable and your little one is ready for it.

Listen: Give them a sense of control

Listening to their questions is key in helping little ones through trauma. What are their concerns? What do they want to know? Giving them a sense of control will really help them process and understand.

Some concerns of Ella Grace were about the wildfires, how it happened, who the people are, where do they go, what happens from here. All this is her trying to place it all in context, how it affects her and if it will happen to us.

I answered her as truthfully as I could. Remember also that you are allowed to say “I don’t know”, if you honestly don’t know. Don’t make up anything or sugar-coat it as it may be a temporary quick-fix but damaging in the long-run. Role-modeling vulnerability and calm will always be powerful for them in any situation.

Another key factor to remember is also listening to your mama gut (not your fears). You know your child best and your gut is your superpower. Be intuitive in knowing how far you can take them and trusting not only yourself but also your little one.

Emphatise

In my workshops we call this getting in the boat. Being honest with how you feel and really empathising with them will go a long way not only in helping them process but also connecting instead of traumatising.

Staying in your primary emotion like sadness or fear will allow your little one to talk about it in a way that really shifts and heals. It says I see you, I love you, I am with you, you are not alone.

Acknowledge their fears and feelings

This is really just echoing that their fears and feelings are valid, regardless of how illogical they may be. It isn’t saying what they are saying is true, but is saying: this is your story and I hear it.

Acknowledging in this context could also be saying what a tremendous humanitarian crisis and loss Australia is facing. As a mama, I want her world to be rainbows and unicorns where bad things never happen. As a Child & Family Development Specialist however, I know that acknowledging and guiding her through the truth helps her build resilience for a world that isn’t always so.

Sit and make a safe space for all those feelings

Sitting really just means holding safe space. For some it might mean tears, for others it might mean a tantrum over something else that feels inconsequential. They may even run away to avoid it triggering their fight-or-flight response.

When we sit through the uncomfortable with them and remind them over and over again through our actions and calm that we are safe together it allows them to move from their reactionary gut brain to a more responsive logical thinking brain.

The gut brain asks am I safe? The heart brain asks am I loved? The thinking brain asks what can I learn – but without feeling safe or loved, learning cannot happen.

Empower and take ownership

When your little one feels a sense of control through feeling safe (understanding what the fires are about, why, how) and feeling loved and supported, then we can move to the critical part of any trauma: taking ownership.

What can we do about it? How can we help? What are some ways and things we can do in our lives to make a difference?

For Ella Grace, it was renewing her cause as a little eco warrior. She came up with the idea that we would stop wasting water so that the lands would have enough water and not dry out and burn. Remember, it doesn’t have to make complete sense to you, it needs to make sense to her.

She also wanted to send a care package so we talked about how that might be quite complicated to get to Australia so I suggested that we send them money instead so they could buy the supplies that they needed. We then brainstormed on ways we could fundraise and save our money to send and help.

She started off this conversation afraid, helpless, and vulnerable and walked away feeling empowered, acknowledged and informed. The reason I teach and advocate respectful parenting is a small and big as this.


Racheal Kwacz is a Child & Family Development Specialist, women’s leadership speaker and mama tribe writer. As a thought leader, Racheal has had years of international experience working with children, training teachers, leading and developing curriculum for childcare centres as well as being a parent educator. She specialises in babies and toddlers 3-and under; focuses on equipping and empowering parents with tools for respectful Parenting through “The RACHEAL Method”. Her most popular workshops include “Toddler Wars”, “Preschool Wars”, “Food Wars”, and she recently led a dialogue with 180 pediatricians, obstetricians and gynaecologists on “Device Wars”. To learn more, connect with her on her website or follow her on socialmedia @rachealkwacz !

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