Children feeling stress of Fort McMurray wildfires

A mother says her children are suffering from the stress of being evacuated from Fort McMurray, seeing the devastation of the wildfires and now staying in a place that isn’t home.

Counsellor offers tips to minimize stress on children during large scale disasters

A giant fireball is seen as a wildfire rips through the forest 16 km south of Fort McMurray on Highway 63 Saturday. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

A mother says her children are suffering from the stress of being evacuated from Fort McMurray, seeing the devastation of the wildfires and now staying in a place that isn't home.

Susanne Chaffey has two children under the age of six and her family's evacuation from their Parsons Creek home was complicated as her husband had to stay behind, because he's a firefighter.

Susanne Chaffey says her children are feeling the stress of being evacuated from the Fort McMurray wildfires, but they will get through it. (Supplied)

She says the evacuation, driving past burned out buildings and arriving, eventually, in Calgary, has taken its toll on her son Reggie, who is almost five, and her two-year-old daughter Annie.

"Physically, my son has been throwing up, they both are not eating well. Their schedule is completely off," Chaffey said.

"My daughter is not feeling well at all."

Schedules gone haywire

She says it could be the stress of the situation, including the fact that their routines are completely out of whack.

"They have a certain schedule. Reggie looks forward to going to school every day and Annie naps at a certain time every day and that has completely gone haywire. We spent almost eight hours in a vehicle to get to a place which was completely foreign and strange to them. Without running water, without food," Chaffey explained.

"It has definitely taken a toll on them."

Communication key

Nadine Gariépy-Fisk, a counsellor with Hospice Calgary, says Chaffey's experience is not unique.

She says, first and foremost, communication is key in letting children know that things will be alright.

"We are all in this together and to express how it is really hard, it is sad, it in confusing for us right now but we will figure this out," Gariépy-Fisk said.

"I think being able to say that, there is reassurance just in that. There is comfort in knowing that you are not alone."

Where possible, Gariépy-Fisk says trying to create an environment where children feel safe can help reduce stress.

"For younger children, a blankie, a teddy bear, a special pillow and if not, if there is an opportunity to find something similar to that, to be able to give them a space that feels like their own, even if it's in the middle of a shelter … would help the child feel comfort."

She says honesty is important but depending on the age, not everything needs to be shared all at once.

"If they have worries about what their house will be like in the future when they go back to it, well let's have this conversation about that. Let's be guided by their questions. And that doesn't mean we give them all the information … as parents we need to screen that information, what is appropriate and what might be too much."

'We will get to go back'

Meanwhile, Chaffey says her family will get through this.

"We are continuing to push forward. Right now there are so many unknowns but for the most part we are healthy, we are safe, we are away from our community unfortunately," she said.

"But we will get to go back at some point."

With files from Diane Yanko