Three Questions and Answers Related to Wildfires and Stress


Wildfire threatens our home. What do I tell my child?

Wildfire, drought, hail, tornadoes, and floods can all lead to high stress. Stress is a normal part of life. We get stressed out when we see a change as a threat. Children and teens watch the adults in their lives for cues how to respond.

How your child reacts to wildfire and other natural disasters depends on your child and his/her inner strengths and on your reactions. Many children have survived horrendous catastrophes without permanent emotional or psychological damage. Both your child’s personality and the support you provide play major roles in your child’s ability to handle stressful situations like wildfire, drought, and other natural disasters.

The more you and I maintain our calm, confident self and problem solve rather than panic and get hysterical, the more we model to our children and youth healthy ways to adapt to stressors like wildfires.

Judith Myers-Walls, Extension Specialist, Human Development at Purdue University says that children experience three levels of stress. Low levels of stress are developmental or normative stress, like an infant dealing with strangers, a preschooler starting school, or an adolescent adjusting to puberty.

Most children deal successfully with and carry with them throughout life the healthy coping strategies they learn in coping with normative stress. Medium levels of stress for children occur with unusually high or low levels of stimulation, moving to a new home, or being hospitalized for an illness or accident. Most children adapt well to these stressors when family members and friends are caring and supportive.

High levels of stress in children are often observed in children who experience serious illness, abuse, and natural disasters like wildfires. Children suffering high levels of stress need great understanding and support from family members. They may also need specific counseling from marriage and family therapists, psychologists, guidance counselors, ministers or priests if the family’s home is destroyed with most of the family’s belongings.

To recognize different stress reactions in infants and toddlers, preschoolers, school-age children, and teens, click here.

The above site also has a chart with examples of all three levels of stress at various age levels.

Knowing what is normal behavior and what could be a sign of a deeper emotional problem can help parents know when to seek professional help. Especially with natural disasters like wildfire, hopefully parents have already taught their children basic safety and emergency rules about how to call 911 and where to go if there is a fire and no parent around.

Here are additional things a parent can do

  • Listen well to your child’s fear, anxiety, and worry.
  • Talk about his or her concerns and problem behaviors.
  • Tell your child the truth about the situation at a level she or he can understand.
  • Assure them that you will keep them safe so that nothing bad happens to them.
  • Involve your child in decision-making and problem-solving processes, which teach them to cope well with catastrophes.
  • Join your child in running, biking, or swimming to relieve inner stress and tension.
  • Get plenty of rest for all family members and eat nutritionally balanced meals.
  • Strive to monitor daily routines and structure about when to wake up, eat, play, do chores, brush teeth, have a story, and go to sleep at night.
  • Give lots of hugs and kisses and other signs of affection so children know they are loved, supported, and cared for.

We’ve had to evacuate our home and neighborhood due to a wildfire. How can we cope well?

If 30 of us lost our homes to wildfires and if we could meet in 3-5 years, we would find that some of us would be functioning better off in 3-5 years. Some of us would be functioning about the same as now. And some of us would be functioning worse off.

What will determine in which group we are in 3-5 years?

Meaning, resources, and pileup are three key factors. First, what meaning would you give the stress of losing your home or of having to evacuate? The more positive the meaning, the greater purpose you can honestly give the stressor, the better you will be able to carry on with the family’s fundamental task—to promote members’ social and emotional development. The more you can eventually redefine the loss as a challenge or an opportunity for growth, the better you will adjust and adapt to the crisis. This is not a Pollyanna attitude of minimizing what is needed or denying reality. No, doing so hinders healthy coping. Redefining positive definitions of a disaster facilitates adaptive coping. Second, using adaptive resources helps families cope with disaster.

Adaptive resources include personal resources, family resources, and social support. Financial resources and economic well-being make a difference. Problem-solving skills and crisis management skills make a difference.

Furthermore, the psychological resources of personal self-esteem and self mastery (the extent to which one perceives having control over one’s life rather than being fatalistically ruled) help individuals and families cope well with disasters. Family resources include family cohesion (closeness) and adaptability. Families who support one another and who are flexible and adaptable to changing circumstances handle crises better. Social support from neighbors, extended family members, and self-help groups provides emotional support, enhances self-esteem, and serves as a protector against the negative effects of stress.

Finally, financial resources can assist the family during the crisis phase and help sustain them during the recovery phase of a disaster. The above resources increase a family’s ability to cope well with crises and promote family adjustment.

Third, pile up makes a difference as to who copes well. The more other stressors that a family experiences following a disaster, the more difficult it is for them to heal from the initial stressor. Pileup might include an accident, birth, death, divorce, unemployment, getting a new job, illness or death of grandparents, children entering school or adolescence, unresolved prior strains, getting a second job, moving to a new community.

The more additional stressors a family faces, the more difficult it is to adapt well. Whatever happens in 3-5 years, some of us will be functioning better then than now. The more we practice redefining crises as challenges that we can meet, the better we will cope. The more personal, family, and community resources we take advantage of, the better we will cope. Finally, the better we prevent accidents and other additional stressors within our control from happening, the better we will cope.

For more information about who copes well and who does not, borrow from your library and read the following book:McCubbin, H. I., & Figley, C.R. (Eds.). (1983). Stress and the family (Vol. I): Coping with normative transitions. New York: Brunner/Mazel.