Pediatric Associates of the NW Blogs

Resiliency and Coping in the Midst of Oregon Wildfires

Tamara Pederson, PhD
September 11, 2020 02:00PM

It’s been an impossible year…a pandemic causing the loss of so many lives, jobs lost and financial stress, racial injustice and social unrest, juggling work with managing the kids’ on-line school demands. We’ve all been working hard, finding strength and creating novel solutions to unfamiliar problems. 

And now, we face devastating and frightening wildfires that dare to spread into our towns and cities, threatening and destroying homes, businesses, nature, and even the lives of people - people we know and people we don’t know but feel connected to nonetheless. It’s hard to imagine how we can take one more thing.

In stressful circumstances, it’s normal to experience changes in our emotions, thinking, and behavior. We may find ourselves feeling sad, angry, anxious, or powerless. It may be more difficult to focus, and memories of devastating things we’ve seen in person or on television may intrude into our awareness, sometimes triggered by things we hear, see, or smell.  We may have times when we’re less productive, find it difficult to stop watching news footage of disasters, react irritably, or have trouble sleeping.  While this is concerning, it’s helpful to remember that these changes are generally temporary – we’ll recover and for the most part begin to function in our usual ways within a few months or less. It’s also good to know that there are things we can do to help ourselves cope and bounce back from stress.

Children and teens have also been affected by this layering of stressful events in the past seven months and may be frightened by the wildfires. Many families are preparing to evacuate or have already done so even as I write this message.  Whether directly affected by fires, the coronavirus, racial injustice, and the economic crisis or not, these events have touched everyone’s life in some way.  Kids may be feeling the same compounded stress, but they also possess the innate capacity to bounce back.  Parents and other trusted adults can help them do so. Here are a few ideas on how to help kids cope with the current crisis:

Communicate: Provide honest and succinct information about what is happening, keeping in mind the child’s level of development.  Take cues from your child as to how much information they are able to manage by giving brief but straight-forward information and waiting to see if they have additional questions.  Ask kids how they are feeling about what is happening, checking in with older kids and teens who may be viewing news coverage.

Normalize feelings: Ask about feelings and show that you’re listening and understand.  It helps us to know that others are feeling these same emotions. 

Support processing of any traumatic experiences:  Talking and writing about trauma can help reduce distress associated with things we’ve seen, heard, or experienced.

Play:  Kids and adults benefit from having time to engage in activities that reduce tension and provide distraction.  Younger kids may spontaneously “play out” their thoughts and feelings about things they’ve heard about or experienced in an effort to work through the stress.  You can support this by being an audience or, if invited, participating in the play, allowing your child to be the boss and refraining from directing the play.

Use routines and structure to provide a sense of security:  If you’ve been displaced from your home, do what you can to re-establish a familiar daily routine.  Activities such as mealtimes, daily self-care, playtime, learning time, and bedtimes all provide a reassuring scaffold for functioning during times of crisis. If possible, maintain family rituals, such as reading together at bedtime.

Give space but remember to check in with teens: It’s normal for adolescents to prefer more time alone, even during a crisis time, but check in with them more often and offer to spend time with them.

Take care of your own needs:  Remember that kids take their cues from the adults around them.  They can sense when those around them are anxious or stressed. The best way to help kids cope and bounce back is to practice good self-care, seek support for yourself, and stay grounded.

While most adults and kids recover from trauma with time, some may struggle more to get back on their feet after a crisis.  At these times, it’s helpful to seek professional care.  If you’re concerned about your child or other family member, or are having difficulty yourself, our caring psychologists are here for your family.


Additional sources of information to help understand the impact of natural disasters and for resilient coping:

 * For information on coping with wildfire events from the National Child Traumatic Stress Network:

* Coping after a residential fire:

* For information regarding the effects of traumatic events, ways that we are impacted in the short term by crises, and suggestions for coping with and recovering from stress.

* A book about resilience for younger children:

The Hugging Tree: A Story about Resilience by Jill Neimark. Available from Magination Press.