Parenting Resource

Coping with Trauma and Stress in the Face of Wildfires

Dec 6, 2017

As wildfires rage across Southern California, many parents with babies and young children will be affected. Whether you’re in an evacuation zone or in an area where you can see, smell or sense the smoke, adults and kids alike will feel the stress. Some may be significantly impacted. Here are some tips for parents of babies and young children to help with the whirl of emotions and anxiety you may be experiencing.

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A wildfire burns through a pine forest with high flames. A fast-moving wildfire is forcing evacuations in Southern California.

Follow safety advice and evacuation orders issued by local officials.

Collect emergency supplies you may need: water, canned goods, paper products, medications, and batteries. Don’t forget diapers, formula and baby-friendly foods as well. If you can’t find bottled water, fill as many containers as you can. Fill your gas tank, withdraw some cash from the bank, and identify your evacuation route and nearby shelters. If you are told to evacuate, then gather what you need and do so.

Pay attention to your facial expression and body language.

Your baby or young child is watching your nonverbal cues to decide whether they are safe. When you can, take a moment to breathe, un-knit your brow, and relax your shoulders. These small physical shifts go a long way in creating a solid sense of safety for your child.

Notice your tone.

It’s perfectly normal during this time to have anxiety in your voice, but your baby senses your fear (as early as 3 months, according to research). If everyone is physically safe, try to focus on that. By being aware of your tone, and keeping your voice calm, you can help your little one feel safe.

Keep routines consistent.

You will surely be stressed and overwhelmed with prepping or packing. But try to keep your young child’s daily schedule as normal and consistent as possible. Knowing what to expect can help children feel physically and emotionally safe—and it might help you feel more grounded as well.

Bring along a “lovey” and extra snuggles.

If you are planning to evacuate and making difficult decisions about what to pack, make room for one of your child’s special stuffed animals, blankets, small toys or books. This “transition object” can help your child adapt to a new place for a few days, or longer. Young children may need more soothing physical touch than usual during this time. When surrounded by everything new, your little one is probably going to want their most loved and familiar person (you!) close by at all times.

Let your children know what’s coming next.

While you are navigating the fires, life may be chaotic. Understanding what might come next can help children feel more safe and secure. Even in situations where you need to move quickly, tell children what is about to happen. “We are getting ready to go to a place where we’ll be safe. There will be many other families there and we’ll all stay safe together.”

Shield your child from frightening conversations or images.

Keep the details of the fires away from your children as much as possible. If you are in a place, like a shelter, where you can’t easily move away from an intense conversation, tell your child a story or sing a song. This can be a good distraction strategy.

Play, sing, and tell stories.

While the last thing you feel like doing may be playing together, try to find some time to connect with your child in a playful way. This is a form of normalcy for them and helps them feel close to you.

Know that during this time your child may seem to lose some skills they’ve already gained.

It’s perfectly normal for a child to “lose” some potty training skills and go back to having accidents or to begin waking up again once or more per night, during periods of intense family stress. Your child may also show less self-confidence and independence and want to stay close to you and be held more than usual. This “clinginess” is a way for them to feel safe and close to you, which is so important to them now.

You may find that your child cries or fusses more, or seems to be too withdrawn, even after the event.

This means that children are still feeling unsure and unsettled. They will need extra cuddling, play, and attention during this time—which can be tough since it’s likely you will be facing many demands in the aftermath. Be sure to tell your child when you have to leave him or her (avoid “sneaking out”), and consider using a good-bye routine—like a special kiss or song—to help with the parting. If your child’s behaviors persist, think about talking with his or her health care provider or seeking out a mental health provider with experience in supporting young children. It is common for both children and adults to need some additional support following a scary and sometimes traumatic event.


Don’t go it alone! Moms and Dads who talk to, and lean on, others will be better able to provide steady, calm guidance for their children. Reach out to neighbors, friends, and local service organizations. An event like this is scary and stressful. Parents need and deserve support in order to support their children.

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