Help for Families 9/7

The Morning Call’s “Help for Families” column is a collaboration between The Morning Call and parenting professionals brought together by Valley Youth House’s Project Child.

QUESTION: 4- and 6-year-old daughters woke up one night to a house filled with smoke and the smoke detector blaring from a fire in our furnace. They were and still are very scared by this event and are afraid to go to sleep at night. We told them that the furnace has been fixed, but that hasn’t helped. How can I help them through this?

ANSWER: This was a very traumatic event for these young children and it may take some time for them to get over it, the Help for Families says.
You have to recognize how upsetting this was for these children, says panelist Suzanne Mulhern. At ages 4 and 6, children still think in very concrete terms and this was something that is very abstract, she says.

“They physically experienced something that was extreme,” panelist Michael Daniels says. “Their minds really can’t help them process it at this age.”

Remind them they are safe now, and validate their feeling by saying, “wow, how scary was that?” Daniels says.

“Keep reinforcing safety and protectiveness,” Daniels says. “You can go and look at the furnace through the open door to be able to put something concrete in their minds with the experience of smoke and fear and crying.”

Show them your smoke detectors and explain that that is why houses have smoke detectors, to keep families safe, says panelist Pam Wallace. Remind them that the detectors were very effective and did their job.
“Walk them down to the basement to see the furnace and give them a physical experience,” says panelist Rhoda Stoudt. “Just talking about the furnace being fixed doesn’t help because they don’t really understand that. Focus on their safety and tell them ‘we are as safe as we can be.'”

If the fire department responded to the incident, you may want to take them down to the fire department and have them talk to firefighters to reassure them, Stoudt says.

If they start crying at night, you can offer to go down and double-check that the furnace is still all fixed and safe, Wallace says.

“Use simple basic language and be patient as the child works through this,” Daniels says.

Daniels says this stresses the importance of maintaining routines for children that are safe and nurturing before bed, he says. Maybe you could even incorporate walking down and checking the furnace as part of the nighttime routine.

“Don’t say it won’t ever happen again,” says panelist Denise Continenza. “Just be reassuring and reinforce that all safety practices are being followed. It also depends on each child’s temperament how long it will take them to get over this. Be patient and be prepared to deal with it for a while.”

And don’t be surprised if it pops up down the road in nightmares, Mulhern says.