Nov. 1, 2017

Meaning Making in Disasters

How parents talk to their children about the Fort McMurray wildfire

Alberta has experienced several prominent natural disasters in recent years, including the 2013 floods and the 2016 Fort McMurray wildfire. Being displaced and disconnected from friends and family are among the many stressors that can impact residents and families involved in these events. While relief efforts cover immediate needs for food, water, and shelter, counsellors and other practitioners may not be as easily accessed during and after these events to support those in need.

Jezzamyn Stone, a Werklund MSc graduate, was interested in how families who were evacuated in the Fort McMurray wildfire spoke with their children about their experience. Helping children to understand and make sense of the events happening around them is tied to better coping and wellbeing. Jezzamyn worked with 12 mothers from Fort McMurray to uncover their approach to supporting their children as they make meaning and cope with the event.

Framing the conversation

The perspective and approach of each family was unique to their own experiences, and the perceived needs of their children and family. Considering their child’s age, temperament/character, pre-existing mental health (e.g. anxiety) of the children, as well as their own family values, shaped both the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ of their discussions. Some parents reported searching for information online about how to handle these discussions, but did not find any helpful, evidence-based suggestions.

The parents committed to having these discussions with their children so that they would learn about the event from their families, rather than from external sources. This was then both a bonding experience during a difficult time, and also helped them mitigate what, when, and how much information the child heard. Some parents preferred to be truthful, in case any non-truths were later discovered by the children, while others chose to tell small non-truths to protect their children from any immediate distress.

Much of the parents’ efforts focused on providing emotional support, hope, and, reassurance to the children. Rather than focusing on the negative aspects of the event, the participants recalled reframing ad debriefing the crisis-oriented information they saw in the media or heard in conversations with those they met. The parents shifted the priorities of the children’s concerns away from their own loss, and focused on the importance of togetherness, safety, and empathetic considerations of others’ experience. For some, this involved changing the idea of a ‘home,’ and what ‘home’ could mean for them now and in the future.

The parents often modeled a positive outlook, demonstrating their values of strength and compassion through their actions and in their discussions. Through managing their own emotions effectively, and inviting their children to witness and engage in altruistic acts, helped set an example for how to react and cope during the evacuation.

Mental health care

The participants’ recounts highlight how these families built narratives of the event with and for their children. The parents all chose a particular approach to discussing the event and often maintained these conversations for months afterwards. Because children look to their parents as models for how to interpret the world, parents play an important role for setting the tone for how to handle stressful situations.

Understanding how families make meaning in crises is particularly important for counsellors and other aid workers. Support services should consider the unique experiences of each family and where they are in the process of meaning making. Supporting better coping and mental health care during and after natural disasters is key to helping families and communities recover.

Stone, J. (2017). Together and Safe: Mothers’ Experiences with Communicating to their Children About Wildfires Before, During, and After Evacuation. Thesis. Available Online.