Residential Fires
National Child Traumatic Stress Network
www.nctsn.org


Recovery: After a fire

After a fire most families can be expected to recover over time, particularly with the support of family, friends, and organizations. The length of recovery will depend upon how frightening the fire was and the extent of the damage and loss. Unlike some natural disasters, where families will return to their normal routine fairly quickly, victims of fire may have to contend with damage or destruction to their home and possessions, overcoming financial hardship, and possibly obtaining medical care. Children need time to recover from the loss of a pet or from having to move out of their school district. In the case of most natural disasters, many families in a community may suffer the same fate, whereas a single family fire often happens in isolation. It is possible that a family suffering a fire alone may experience greater psychological distress.
Children's functioning may be influenced by how their parents and other caregivers cope during and after the fire. Children often turn to adults for information, comfort, and help. Parents and teachers should try to remain calm, answer children's questions honestly, and respond as best they can to requests. It helps children and adolescents when they understand the event they have just gone through.

Children's Reactions

It has been reported that after a fire, almost twenty-five to thirty-five percent of burned children develop Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), while approximately fifty percent display a significant number of PTSD symptoms. To children, fires seem to be an uncontrollable event; hence, they need to be reassured they will be safe. Children react differently to a fire depending on their age, developmental level, and prior experiences. Some will respond by having nightmares or other sleep disturbance, while others will have angry outbursts. Still others may become agitated or irritable. Parents should attempt to remain sensitive to each child's reactions. The following are typical reactions children might exhibit following a fire or any natural disaster:

  • Fear and worry about their safety or the safety of others, including pets
  • Fear of separation from family members
  • Clinging to parents, siblings, or teachers
  • Worry that another fire will come
  • Increase in activity level
  • Decrease in concentration and attention
  • Withdrawal from others
  • Angry outbursts or tantrums
  • Aggression to parents, siblings, or friends
  • Increase in physical complaints, such as headaches and stomachaches
  • Change in school performance
  • Long-lasting focus on the fire, such as talking repeatedly about it or acting out the event in play
  • Increased sensitivity to reminders of the fire
  • Changes in sleep patterns
  • Changes in appetite
  • Lack of interest in usual activities, even playing with friends
  • Regressive behaviors, such as baby-talk, bedwetting, or tantrums
  • Increase in risky behaviors for teens, such as drinking alcohol, using substances, harming themselves, or engaging in dangerous activities

What You Can Do to Help Your Child

Parents should spend time talking to their children, letting them know that it is okay to ask questions and to share their worries. Although it will be hard finding time to have these conversations, parents can use mealtimes or bedtimes to talk. They can let children know what plans they have with regard to the living situation, going to school, childcare, work, and so forth. They should answer questions briefly and honestly and be sure to ask their children for their opinions and ideas. Issues may come up more than once, so parents should remain patient and open to answering questions again. For younger children, after talking about the fire, parents might read a favorite story or have a relaxing family activity to help them feel more safe and calm.

To help children's recovery, parents should:

Be a role model. Try to remain calm, so your child can learn from you how to handle stressful situations.

Monitor adult conversations. Be aware of what adults are saying about the attack. Children may misinterpret what they hear and be unnecessarily frightened.

Limit media exposure. Protect your child from graphic images of the fire, particularly those on television, on the radio, and in the newspaper

Reassure children they are safe. You may need to repeat this frequently even after the fire has long been put out. The Red Cross provides materials for children that can help them learn more about fire safety at http://www.redcross.org/services/disaster/0,1082,0_584_,00.html.

Spend extra time with your children, playing games outside, reading together indoors, or just cuddling. Be sure to tell them you love them

Replace lost or damaged toys as soon as you are able.

Take care of your children's health. Help them get enough rest, exercise, water, and healthy food. Be sure they have a balance of quiet times and physical activities.

Try to return to regular daily life as much as possible. Even in the midst of disruption and change, children feel more secure with structure and routine. If you can, keep to regular mealtimes and bedtimes.

Maintain expectations. Stick to your family rules about good behavior and respect for others. Continue family chores, or having children help out where you are staying, but keep in mind that children may need more reminding than usual. Children cope better and recover sooner if they feel they are being helpful; afterward, however provide activities that are not related to the fire, such as playing cards or reading.

Be extra patient once children return to school, particularly if they must attend a school in a new location. They may be more distracted and need extra help with homework for a while

Tell your child's school administration and teacher about the fire and maintain communication with them, so that they can help make returning to school a supportive experience for your child.

Give support at bedtime. Children may be more anxious at times of separation from parents. Spend a little more time talking, cuddling, or reading than usual. (You will want to start the bedtime routine earlier so children get the sleep they need). If younger children need to sleep with you, let them know it is a temporary plan, and that soon they will go back to sleeping in their own beds.

Help with boredom. Daily activities, such as watching television, playing on the computer, and having friends over, may have been disrupted. If you must relocate away from your neighborhood, your child may miss out on extracurricular activities, like sports or dance classes. Help children think of alternative activities to do, such as board games, card games, and arts and crafts. Try to find community programs (at the library, a park program, or a local YMCA) with child-friendly activities your child can attend

Keep things hopeful. Even in the most difficult situation, it is important to remain optimistic about the future. Your positive outlook will help your children be able to see good things in the world around them. This will help get them through even the most challenging times.

Seek professional help if your child still has difficulties more than four weeks after the fire.

Therapy for Children

If children have difficulties for more than six weeks after the fire, consult a mental health professional for an evaluation. If the clinician recommends counseling, keep in mind that Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) has the strongest evidence for helping children recover from a disaster. Therapy for children should typically include:

  • Family involvement
  • Awareness of developmental level and cultural/religious differences
  • Assessment of preexisting mental health problems and prior traumas and loss
  • Explanation and normalization of the child's psychological reactions to the attack
  • Teaching ways to manage reactions, including those to reminders of the fire
  • Teaching problem-solving and anger management skills as needed
  • Helping to maintain normal developmental progression

What Parents Can Do to Help Themselves

Parents may have a tendency to neglect their own needs during a crisis. In order to be able to take care of their children, parents must take care of themselves. Here are some things parents should keep in mind:

Take care of yourself physically. Eat healthily, get enough sleep, and get proper medical care.
Support each other. Parents and other caregivers should take time to talk together and provide support as needed.

Put off major decisions. Avoid making any unnecessary life-altering decisions during this stressful post-fire period.

Give yourself a break. Try not to overdo clean-up activities. Avoid lifting heavy items or working for extended periods of time to reduce injury.

What Teachers Can Do to Help Their Students

Teachers can play an important role in helping their students recover from a fire. Returning to school is important in promoting a child's welfare. Try the following suggestions to assist you in your work with children, adolescents, and families, if they experience a fire:

Talk to the child's parents to find out what secondary stresses they are experiencing following the fire, such as finding housing, financial hardship, injuries to family members, or loss of family pet. In this way, you can be sensitive to the extent of the distress, and able to refer the family to community resources.

Find out about the child's experience of the fire, so that you will be aware of curriculum content, field trip experiences, or other school activities that might trigger reminders for the child.

Be flexible with regard to amount of homework and requirements; for example, accept handwritten assignments for a child whose family has lost their computer.

If a child has relocated to your school temporarily, due to the family home being uninhabitable, maintain a packet of information on the childâ??s progress that can be sent to the original school district upon the child's return.

If a child comes to school with burns or wounds, address both the needs of the child and of the other students. Speak with the administration and faculty about ways to support the injured child and reintegrate him or her into the school community. Provide opportunities for the other students to learn about the injured child's experience, so they can be supportive rather than ridiculing.