While it’s not officially summer yet, some local kids are out of school and day care here in New York. As smoky, noxious air drifted down from 150 Canadian wildfires, Northeast air quality plummeted, renewing a feeling of anxiety and crisis that we haven’t felt since the onset of COVID restrictions.
As an ex-teacher who ushered New York schoolchildren through a complex web of emotional trauma during 9/11, I can attest that our children’s lives have once again had their sense of normalcy derailed.
For children with asthma and other respiratory illnesses, and those with cardiovascular issues, their vulnerable developing lungs put them at increased risk for lung damage from wildfire smoke.
This unusually dangerous wildfire pollution our children are experiencing when they look up at the scary orange-gray sky and breathe in the toxic air needs to be addressed.
Here are some tips on how to talk to kids about wildfires excerpted from the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry:
- Create an open and supportive environment where children know they can ask questions.
- Give children honest answers and information.
- Use words and concepts children can understand. Gear your explanations to the child’s age, language, and developmental level.
- Be prepared to repeat information and explanations several times.
- Acknowledge and validate the child’s thoughts, feelings, and reactions. Let them know that you think their questions and concerns are important and appropriate.
- Remember that children tend to personalize situations. For example, they may worry about their own safety and the safety of immediate family members.
- Be reassuring, but don’t make unrealistic promises. It’s fine to let children know that they are safe in their house. But you can’t promise that there won’t be another wildfire or other natural disaster.
- Help children find ways to express themselves. Some children may not want to talk about their thoughts, feelings, or fears. They may be more comfortable drawing, playing with toys, or writing stories or poems.
- Let children know that lots of people are helping. It’s a good opportunity to show children that when something scary happens, there are people to help.
- Children learn from watching their parents and teachers. They will be very interested in how you respond.
While areas across the nation have experienced this level of climate anxiety from wildfires, marking yet another climate extreme, it’s new to me. And as we’ve mentioned when talking about mental health and climate change, an important first step for parents can be to normalize and validate your own feelings of climate distress. These feelings are a sign that you deeply care about protecting our precious children.