It seems so long ago that we said an excited goodbye to the 2019 school year on a sunny, clear and cool December day, with plans for a long and restful summer break. We did not think we would be preparing to defend our homes, farms and properties from fires the size of which we could not imagine. We did not think we would be reassuring our young children while huddling on beaches on the south coast as the sky went orange and black. Nor think we would be repeatedly saying goodbye to our family members who are RFS volunteers, trying not to think about what could happen, staying positive, with a kiss goodbye. Meanwhile, our favourite cafes and restaurants, our mountains, our bike trails are all empty as our visitors stay away, impacting family businesses. At the moment Jindabyne is enjoying a reprieve from high temperatures and strong winds but the shroud of smoke keeps us on our toes.
How do we support each other as we continue to manage this crisis and into the future when it has passed? Particularly, how do we help our children?
Here are a few thoughts:
- Remember our children are at different developmental stages in addition to being uniquely themselves. Their reactions can vary widely and we are wanting to know if what they are experiencing is “normal”. If you are feeling like your child is not themselves, ask them. It is best to be specific about what you are noticing and ask about it. For example, “I have noticed you are getting frustrated easily and are all out of sorts – do you want to talk about it or just need a hug?” Children will correct you if you are way off the mark. The important thing is that you are showing them you are noticing what is happening for them and are willing to talk about it if they want to. It would be expected that we all, children and young people included, may display symptoms of stress for the next few weeks. These could include difficulties sleeping, irritability, fatigue, appetite issues, trouble concentrating, and feeling edgy and anxious. Once the crisis has resolved, the symptoms should abate with time. Some websites are quoting time frames of around 6 weeks, it is important to be mindful that there is a broad range of individual difference in every person’s unique road to recovery. In addition, also be mindful of the media coverage that your child may see that may prolong these symptoms even when the crisis has passed. If you or your child are feeling completely overwhelmed by these symptoms do not hesitate to seek help now. I am very happy to talk through any concerns and possible referrals with you, I can be contacted through the school office.
- Listening to the experience of our children without judgement is crucial as it helps us understand that they are managing losses even if they are nowhere near the fires. I know of birthday parties, sporting events and booked holidays that have all been cancelled. Our children will feel those losses and it is easy to dismiss them as unimportant given the devastation others are managing. However, our children need help to openly manage their feelings around their own story of loss. Listening is the first step and then together make a plan that might help them while these feelings pass. If we are lucky, the conversation may then offer the opportunity to build empathy for those doing it tougher than we are, suggesting ways our child could help those who have lost so much and are feeling bad, just like they are at the moment, such as together choosing a charity to donate to or drawing a picture with a thank you to the local RFS brigade.
- There have been necessary discussions in the media about the effect of the fires on our mental health. Importantly, our awareness of PTSD has been raised. In addition, I would also like to raise your awareness of PTG – post-traumatic growth. This week on the news, a gentleman who lost his home and all his belongings on Kangaroo Island was interviewed and said that he could not have believed before this that people could be so generous and kind. He said, “I am a better person for having experienced this”. It is empowering for our children to understand that out of the traumatic event we can learn and grow as individuals and communities. Let us all be on the lookout for PTG in ourselves and those around us in order to find encouragement and hope.
I have the privilege of living in a neighbourhood with several of our students. The day when the fire was most threatening, we undertook the hot and dirty work of preparing our homes. I witnessed those young people keeping positive while feeling scared, fully engaged in working as a team as we prepared our street. Authentically connected to their parents and neighbours. Helping whomever they could. While I would not wish this crisis on our country and our community, it offered an opportunity for those young people to connect and make an authentic difference in our neighbourhood. I felt so proud of them. They stepped up to the challenge and certainly were demonstrating our school values of Courage, Authenticity, Respect and Empathy.
The preparations for the return of our students in 2020 now include how we can best support and resource them given the crisis that is still unfolding. Please do not hesitate to contact the school if you have any concerns or questions.
In a letter to our families, Dr Bell has already provided links to helpful information for support at this time. I now provide these again, with some additions: