(October 29, 2007) – This week several thousand families in California lost everything they own in a series of fires that ravaged 850,000 acres near San Diego. Almost a million people had only a few hours to decide which few possessions to take with them when they evacuated their homes. America watched as ten thousand families with shell-shocked children and traumatized pets huddled together in Qualcomm Stadium. As of this writing, about two thousand houses have burned to the ground; another 20,000 are still at risk. Entire neighborhoods lay in ashes.

Today the most fortunate have already returned to their homes and to the beginning of normal routines. Schools are reopening. People are making plans to rebuild. The Chargers are playing in Qualcomm Stadium again.

During times of natural disasters such as the California fires, parents soothe small children but often ignore their teens. Adults become caught up in the practicalities of finding shelter, contacting insurance companies, making temporary plans, and other details of the crisis. They expect teens to get by on their own.

Nevertheless, residential fires can be particularly difficult situations for children and teenagers because they threaten two areas of basic security, according to Dr. Robert Butterworth, a Los Angeles psychologist. He said that for any dependent child, the “predictability of the physical environment and the security of one’s parents” are the basis of security. Young people will naturally react whenever their basic security is threatened.

Research indicates that between 14% and 43% of all children experience some severe trauma growing up. The vast majority recover without long-lasting psychological damage.

Virginia Tech professors Russell Jones and Tom Ollendick are the foremost experts on the impact of residential fires on children. Part of their work was studying the effect of a series of fires in Santa Barbara, CA on children ages 12 to 16 years. They found that about 10 children in every 100 families experienced some stress after their houses burned down. One very normal reaction was for a young person to become concerned with fire safety, and things like ladders, fire retardants, and smoke alarms. This is healthy and should be encouraged.

A natural disaster such as the California fires that affects an entire community usually produces less post-traumatic stress than harmful personal situations. While it is devastating for any teen to experience the loss of a home, it is usually worse when a teen watches violence against family members – such as a parent’s assault or murder, according to Dr. Jack Shale, a medical doctor and director of San Diego County’s Adult Mental Health Services. However, he and others note that going through a residential fire will be more traumatic for those teens experiencing losses in other areas of their lives – for example, divorce or death of a loved one.

A teen’s symptoms of post-traumatic stress are more likely to match those of adults rather than those of small children. Young children may wet their beds, for example, or develop fears of the dark. Teens may become anxious, sad, irritable, depressed and have trouble falling asleep or concentrating. Some have auditory and visual flashbacks or experience intrusive thoughts about the fire. Some will want to avoid school or turn to drugs and alcohol.

It can take a day or two after the fire for symptoms to appear, or as long as a year.

Parents can play a huge role in helping their teens get through this or any disaster with the least amount of psychological stress. The three most important things are to share your feelings and concerns with your teen, provide calm and positive role models, and know how to recognize signs of abnormal stress and overreaction. Here are some other tips:

  • If you fall apart, your teen is likely to follow your example.
  • Talk about your feelings about the fire with your teen in an honest and open way. People feel pressure to say things like, “We’re so grateful we’re okay, and that we only lost stuff that we can always buy again.” While this attitude is positive and upbeat, it does not preclude talking about how you really miss your house and certain of your “stuff.”
  • Watch television news as a family, but do not watch it to excess.
  • Teens communicate with each other online. If your teen seems more obsessed than ever with computer texting and emails, that’s normal.
  • Send your teen to school. School provides stability, and many are offering group counseling for students.
  • Allow your teen to participate in rebuilding plans.
  • If your teen is experiencing some of the symptoms mentioned above, get help from school counselors or through these mental health resources as printed in the North Country Times, October 29, 2007:

San Diego County Access and Crisis Line offers mental health services 24 hours a day: 1 (800) 479-3339

California Youth Crisis Line offers mental health help for children and teens: 1 (800) 843-5200

Alliant International University offers free psychological services for fire victims and training to groups that deal with fire victims. Leave a message: (858) 635-4494.

North Coastal: 1701 Mission Ave., Ste. A, Oceanside, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday, (760) 967-4475

North Inland: 125 West Mission Ave., Escondido, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, (760) 480-3500