top of page
  • Writer's pictureLorelei Hoyt

When Feelings spread like wildfire – Talking to kids about the fires and evacuations.

Updated: May 19

It has come to my attention that the children in our lives are experiencing distress over the wildfires and evacuations in Alberta. Several parents have brought forward concerns on how to discuss these events with their children.

The news of the wildfires is impacting all of us, children included. The alerts on our phones, news on the radio, posts on social media, and discussions both private and public contribute to the sense of anxiety in our communities. This anxiety is being felt and in turn experienced by our youngest citizens.

Children aren’t dumb.

They know more than you realize.

When you dismiss their concerns, it invalidates their experience.

So what can you do?

Here are a few suggestions.

First, turn off some of the barrage of worrisome input that can be contributing to

their concerns. This may include silencing your cell phone, limiting social media time, changing the radio station and limiting discussion in front of your children as appropriate.

Second, honour your children’s experience. No matter what your child is experiencing take the time to listen to their experiences, thoughts, and feelings. Some children have been evacuated. Some have friends and family who have been evacuated or are on alert. Some have seen the fire in the distance. Many have smelled the smoke. Almost all have heard discussions, including those they may not completely understand.

No matter what your own child’s experience listen to them without judgement. Above all don’t invalidate their feelings. Reassure them that you want them to feel safe to come to you with their worries and you are ready to listen. Then do just that. Listen.

Be present and attentive. Ask open ended clarifying questions such as ‘tell me more’ or ‘what else … have your heard/seen/felt/worried about?’

Stay calm and provide honest reassurance. Don’t lie or mislead your child. That only breeds mistrust in the end. Try approaches like the SET technique which stand for Support Empathy Truth. It might look like this.

Child: I could see the orange from the fire and smell the smoke. My friend’s parents said our houses might burn down and we would have no place to live. I don’t want my toys to burn.


Parent: “Wow those must be some really big feelings for your friend. I care about you and worry about how you are feeling. Can you tell me more?”

Now listen. Just listen. Be open to your child’s perceptions. Remember they are not adults. They have different levels of understanding and experiences than we do.

Don’t try to tell them their fears are unreasonable or that they shouldn’t worry. In the entire history of humanity has telling anyone not to worry ever worked? It’s a bit like telling a person to calm down. Not really very effective and often very invalidating. So just listen and let them feel safe in telling you what they feel.

Child: “I am scared that my school/house/friend’s house or whatever will catch on fire.

Or “I am scared the fire will come in the night and we won’t wake up.”

Or “I am scared we will have to evacuate.”

Or “I don’t know” and they shut down.

If your child shuts down that’s ok. You opened the door of support for them to safely approach you and that is what matters. Talks like this are not one and done. They are ongoing conversations that should be revisited regularly. By opening the door and allowing your child to determine how they want to proceed you create that safe place for later conversations. No matter what your child’s response is just gently take the next step.


Parent: “That’s ok if you don’t know. It’s a big topic with some big ideas and feelings. You can think about it and get back to me later if you want.” Then move on with your day as normally as possible.

If you child does express worries or anything else. Validate them empathetically. That doesn’t mean you are agreeing with them. It just means you are honoring their experience. It might look like this.

Parent: “Wow that must be scary to worry about your school/house/friend’s house and the fire. I can understand why that would upset you. I would be upset if I was worried about my school/work or house catching on fire too. What else are you worried about?”

Or “Not waking up if the fire came would be scary. I can understand why you would feel that way. I might be scared too if I thought I wouldn’t wake up. Tell me more?”

Or “I would rather not evacuate too. Tell me more about that?”

These responses show your child you heard them by repeating the message of their concern back to them. That shows your child you really heard what they were saying and attended fully to them. Then expressing accurate empathy that you would feel similarly if you worried felt the same as them validates their experience. This is important. It doesn’t mean you agree just that if you had the same concerns as them you might experience similar emotions. This shows the child they are understood and honors their emotional experience as legitimate to them.

Next you may be able to incorporate some supportive truths to relieve your child’s concerns. You will have to use your judgement here. Not every child needs this step. Often it is best to just leave it with the empathy step so that they feel heard. This creates a space for them to approach you again without feeling their experience will be dismissed or invalidated. A good guideline is that for every 4 or 5 times you use support and empathy you may only need to incorporate one time you use a supportive truth. If you do it might look like this.


Parent: “I would hate for our school/house/friend’s house to burn down too. That is why we are all being extra careful to not light fires until the fire ban is over. Lucky for us there are hundreds of amazing firefighters helping all over Alberta to put out the fires. They are working really hard along with hundreds of volunteers like farmers and construction workers and road builders to use big equipment to turn big areas of grass in to churned up black dirt that the fire can‘t burn. That helps stop it from spreading so that they can put it out.”

Or “I am glad we have smoke detectors in the house to wake up if there is every any smoke nearby. That way the fire won’t get close to us without us waking up. Shall we test them or change the batteries to help you feel safer?”

Or “Evacuating to a safer area is like using the fire alarm at school. You know when you do a fire drill? Well, that helps you practice knowing where to go and what to do just in case there is ever anything dangerous. Evacuation warnings for a community helps people get ready just in case so that they know where to go and what to do. Its like the fire alarm at your school. When people do evacuate it protects them from danger and allows all the people working on putting out the fire to do their job better. That is like the fire drill at your school. With all the people out of the way someplace safe the firefighters don't have to worry about if anyone is in danger. They can just pay attention to stopping the fire. It even makes it easier

for them to be able to drive their big equipment around the streets with all the cars moved someplace safe. That why an empty community is easier for them to protect from the fire. Would you like to put together a bag of things you might want if we do have to do a ‘fire drill’ and evacuate for a few days?”

Keep the conversation relaxed and calm. Provide reassurance and think ahead. What will help you child feel safer if you must leave? Would taking a few special objects like stuffies or books help? Then encourage your child to get them all gathered in one area. Would knowing where you will be going help? Then have your child talk to the people you will stay with to know they are welcome. Would talking to their friend who has been evacuated be comforting? Then see if you can set up a facetime for them.

Meanwhile let kids help where they can. This empowers them to feel like they are contributing and helps them feel more in control of their situation. It can be as simple as locating a pets supplies all to one spot, or helping with laundry so that all their clothes are clean and ready to wear.

Encourage social connection in whatever form that may take. Phone calls with friends or grandparents can help keep kids connected to positive experiences throughout these stressful times. This can relieve uncertainty and calm nerves for everyone involved.

Finally, take care of yourself. You need to be emotionally well to be able to provide quality parenting. Be gentle with yourself.

This is an excellent time to practice mindfulness and grounding activities to help your child

self-regulate. This can include anything from box breathing and progressive muscle relaxation, to yoga, time spent in nature or with companion animals. Whatever works for you and your child to self-regulate. And remember that it is important to show not, tell when it comes to self-regulation. Children learn what they live so if you do activities that demonstrate you regulating your emotions, they will learn to do the same.

Lastly, reach out for supports. There are resources out to help. These can include personal resources like family and friends, or community resources like helplines and counselling. I have linked several options for additional resources at the end of this article you may find useful.

If you or someone you know is struggling, we want to help. Contact us for additional support.


Help in Tough Times We’re here to help

Alberta Emergency Management Agency

Wildfire Resources Information for Albertans

Wildfire preparedness Learn about wildfires and what you can do to protect yourself and others.

Parent Guidelines for Helping Children Impacted by Wildfires

Helping Children After a Wildfire: Tips for Parents and Teachers

Talking to Your KidsHealthy Together

Community Resources – 211 Alberta

Crisis Text Line - Text CONNECT to 741741

Mental Health Help Line at 1-877-303-2642 or Health Link at 811.

Kids Help Phone – 1-800-668-6868 or text CONNECT to 686868

“Psychology Works” Fact Sheet: Coping with Emergencies, Disasters and Violent Events

Alberta Psychologists Association

Our Disaster Response Network members are offering three (3) pro-bono psychological services to victims and first responders traumatized by recent events.

To access this service, please contact our office by giving us a call at 780-424-0294 or sending us an email at

Alberta Health Disaster Resources

Canadian Red Cross 2023 Alberta Fires

17 views0 comments
bottom of page