For children and adolescents whose lives were affected by this year's Texas wildfires, the holiday season may bring added anxiety, especially if they lost their home, pets, or treasured possessions and holiday keepsakes.
In some instances children may be experiencing survivor guilt because their home was left unharmed in the wildfires, while those of friends or family were completely destroyed.
While the support of their families can help children work through their fire fears and sense of loss, the state and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) remind parents and other caregivers that free crisis counseling is available now and well into next year.
One such program, funded by FEMA and administered by the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) in coordination with Bluebonnet Trails Community Services, is offered for children and families in some affected communities as a result of the major disaster declaration.
"Children confronted with wildfire-related stress may experience a change in behavior, from stomach pains to nightmares to a loss of appetite," said Pam Krejci, a licensed clinical social worker and director of Behavioral Health Essential Services at Bluebonnet Trails Community Services. "These changes may be difficult for a parent to manage, especially with the added stress of the holiday season, and that's when the crisis counseling program can be helpful."
Trained counselors are available through the network of state Community Mental Health Centers. Calls to the crisis lines are free of charge, and wildfire survivors can request a face-to-face follow-up session if their needs cannot be fully served through phone counseling. For information on crisis counseling available in their county, survivors can call the 2-1-1 Texas Information and Referral Network.
These tips from the mental health experts may also help parents and other caregivers whose families were affected by the wildfires:
1. Slow down and enjoy the holiday season with your family. Make an effort to spend any extra time with your child or children.
2. Do the best that you can, keeping in mind that the holidays are a stressful time even without the factor of the wildfires.
3. Be flexible. This holiday will be different than others. However, this is an opportunity to create new traditions with your family. It may be helpful to incorporate these with old traditions.
4. Provide an environment where children are able to express their feelings. Initiate the discussion and be honest with your own feelings, as you may be worried and insecure yourself.
5. Take care of yourself so that you can help your children.
The DSHS Disaster Behavioral Health Services team encourages parents to help children through the season by listening and talking about their feelings, while reassuring them they are loved and that it's OK to have these feelings. Children are resilient, and with reassurance and love, they will be able to take a life-changing event and develop the coping mechanisms to assist them in the future. If families need extra help, free counseling is available.