Responding to young people who were present at the Orleans Fire

Tracy Lamperti, Board Certified Expert of Traumatic Stress


Hundreds of families/children were present last night at the Orleans Fireworks display and found themselves too close for comfort to the unexpected fire that erupted at the end.  The statistics show that among direct witnesses to even fatal traumatic events such as 9/11 and the marathon bombing, less than half go on to experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, possibly as few as 20%.  The event last night certainly pales in comparison to a traumatic event where lives are lost or serious injuries are sustained, however, it is important to recognize that there are needs of those who were present, and that while some thought the event was simply exciting, others experienced the event as acutely stressful.  Following are some tips about how to approach children about this event.

  • Censor, censor, censor!

I was just at the Superette picking up a few things.  EVERYONE was talking about it.  (Well, not everyone.)  Everyone has a commentary.  Some people give an account with great emotion in their voice and strong opinion.  Our children don’t need to hear adults expressing “Big Emotion.”  It is ok to say to your children when you get back into the car, something like, “People can get caught up in the excitement of it all!  Let’s try to remember that everyone got out safe and sound and the emergency personnel did a great job helping everyone stay protected.”  Be careful of your own conversation on the phone and at home with family and friends.  It is important that your children not be witness to the “drama aftermath.”

  • Model calm and containment.

Our children are watching others but the ones with the strongest influence are their parents.  They will mirror your response in more cases than not.

  • Ask, check-in and ask again if your children want to talk about it.

People benefit from being allowed to share their own experience, in their own words, and having loved ones be good listeners.  Some good questions are, “What was it like for you when you realized a fire had started?”  “What were you thinking when I quickly said, let’s get our things and get to the car?”  Try to avoid statements that assign feelings that may not be accurate, such as, “You must have been terrified!”  “How awful for a child to experience something like that.”  Once there have been a few talks about it, let it rest.  Check in with your children about other aspects of their life and look for cues, IF there are any, that your child wants to talk some more about it.  A few weeks later is a good time, such as around the dinner table, to bring it up again, “Has anyone been thinking about the night of the fireworks?”  If so, give turns to talk and listen.

  • Try to avoid strong commentary.

As I might be thinking, “Come on, why didn’t they call it because of the wind!?  What were they thinking!”  “Who’s to blame?” kind of thinking.  Our children don’t need to sort out the blame or feel conflict or dissension, especially if YOU really wanted to pack up the kids and go and your husband said it’s too windy, but you won.

  • Experience safe and healthy fire.

If you have a back yard fire pit, get it going.  Be very safe and talk openly about how you are being safe.  How is the wind?  Is long hair tied back? Is there water within reach?  How do we put it out and make sure it is out?  Are sparks falling on dry grass?  Use the opportunity to talk about fire safety.  Let your children beckon the question, “I think it was too windy to have fireworks that night.”    If you don’t have a fire pit, light a candle at the table for dinner and include some points about safety.

  • Reinforce the fact that the outcome was positive.

Talk about the fire and police departments and what their roles were and the fact that there were no injuries and the fire was extinguished quickly.

  • Trauma/Acute Stress affects the brain on some level.

When people are frightened, they often become unconsciously hyper-aware of certain senses like smell and taste, especially where there is a strong sensation such as the smell of fire/something burning.  Upon smelling the same smell at a later date, the person can be re-triggered to have bad feelings.  They sometimes don’t even realize the two are paired or where the bad feelings are coming from.  It can be helpful to unconsciously re-pair new sensations to the memories of the event.  This can be done by playing calming music softly while the person is talking about the event.  You can also work the aromatherapy angle by introducing a pleasant scent while the person is talking about the event.  You don’t have to explain to your child that you are doing this.  Just do it.  The brain works to create new pathways for the memory.  So put a nice scent in your purse or in the kitchen drawer just in case.

All in all, it is a blessing that all were safe and the only loss appears to be beach grass and equipment use.  I trust that there will be very few significant lasting negative emotional consequences of this event.  Positively, families can use the experience to draw closer together and make it a learning experience for their family and one that will guide your child in safety ways as they grow up and start their own family.  It is a good lesson for understanding the impact of a small spark.

Blessings to all of you for a safe and happy rest of the summer!

Tracy Lamperti, LMHC, BCETS

Psychotherapist, Educator, Consultant