11 Ways to Help Your Child Through a Natural Disaster

11 Ways to Help Your Child Through a Natural Disaster

After Hurricane Michael tore through the Florida Panhandle in October 2018, shattering homes and schools, some displaced children and parents had nowhere to sleep but their car. Toddlers were stunned by the landscape of smashed houses and fallen trees. Pointing at his battered neighborhood, one three-year-old turned to his mother.  “It’s broken. It’s broken, mommy, fix it!” he begged.

Children already traumatized by Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) are among those most likely to be triggered by such a disaster or its aftermath. Here is some expert advice on how to help children through these catastrophes:

  1. Get ready for the next disaster. “Kids are actors in their own resilience,” said Sarah Thompson, Save the Children’s director for U.S. emergency programs. “Teach them how to be safe by having a family emergency plan.” Among her advice: Talk about your evacuation route out of the house and town and where to meet up, and keep an emergency kit with the right supplies ready to go, including food and water, an extra set of clothes, toothbrushes and soap, a journal for kids to write in, and a comfort item such as a teddy bear. “Have kids carry a card with emergency contacts and medical information, too,” she added.
  2. Stay calm. In the aftermath of a fire or hurricane, you’re probably dealing with crushing stress. “But try to stay as calm as you can — children are looking at you on how to respond,” said Thompson. It can be especially helpful to tell them a story of how you overcame something when you were scared, she said.
  3. Be comforting. Be prepared for some behavior changes. Your children may be upset and even inconsolable if they lose a favorite toy, blanket, or stuffed animal. They may go from being joyful and outgoing to timid and distrustful. They may regress to bed-wetting or whine, have nightmares, throw tantrums, and not want to let you out of their sight. It can be

    Children play with trained Save the Children staff and volunteers in one of the nonprofit’s Child Friendly Spaces in an emergency shelter in the Florida Panhandle in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael.  These are safe, designated areas where children can play, socialize and begin to recover after a disaster, while allowing their parents to rest and concentrate on recovery needs. Photo credit: Nicolle Keogh /Save the Children

    trying when you, too, are traumatized, but remain as reassuring as possible.

  4. Encourage your children to talk about their feelings. It’s natural for children and adults – even those far away from the tragedy – to feel anger, guilt, sadness and fear, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). Let your children know their feelings are normal ones to have after a disaster. “Validate their emotions – let them know it’s ok to be angry or scared,” said Thompson. “Assure them it’s not their fault , since small children sometimes assume that it is. Let them know that caring adults are working to keep them safe.”
  5. Watch for non-verbal cues. Thompson remembers children in one Florida shelter’s play space enthusiastically building “a pretty extensive fort” with cardboard boxes, replete with windows and decorations. To the volunteers’ surprise, the kids then knocked it all down. “Then we realized that they were being the hurricane,” she said. “It was their way of telling the story of what happened…And when they were ready, we made a circle around the destroyed fort and they built it back up again.”
  6. Reassure them of your love. It’s more important than ever to reassure your child that he or she “is loved, safe (in whatever realistic or truthful way they are), and cared for,” according to the AAP.
  7. Monitor the news. Young kids do not need to see or listen to alarming news accounts of the disaster. It’s good – without sugarcoating – to point to the people and services that are trying to help.
  8. Keep up your routines. In the aftermath of Hurricane Michael, members of Save the Children fanned out to shelters to distribute badly needed children’s supplies from diapers and baby wipes to hygiene kits and portable cribs; they also created child-friendly play spaces overseen by trained volunteers so children could relax, play games and regain a sense of normalcy. As much as possible, stick to your “anchoring rituals” like bedtimes, meal times, story time, exercise, and play, which all boost kids’ sense of safety and security.
  9. Pay it forward. Encourage your kids to send first responders a letter or drawing or help others affected by the crisis.
  10. Don’t forget about selfcare. Remember, self-care isn’t selfish. Get support for yourselves from the agencies offering it; talk with your family and friends; and get some rest. The better you feel, the better you can take care of your children.
  11. Consider professional help. Don’t be surprised if an event is so traumatic that your child may need extra help weeks or even months later. If your children – or you — continue having emotional difficulties, consider seeing a mental health professional.

References

Kennedy, K. (2015, November 25). A tough hurricane recovery job: Making kids feel safe again. Associated Press, carried by the Washington Post.

Goldman, D., and Reeves, J. Baby born three days after Hurricane Michael starts life in Walmart parking lot. Associated Press, carried by USA Today. Retrieved from https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation-now/2018/10/18/hurricane-michael-baby-born-storm-sleeps-walmart-parking-lot/1680750002/

Ursano, RJ et al. (1994). Individual and community response to trauma and disaster. Retrieved from https://psycnet.apa.org/record/1994-97710-000