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It is important to warn children, without overly alarming them, about disasters.Tell children that a disaster is something that could hurt people or cause damage.

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Explain that nature sometimes provides “too much of a good thing” – fire, rain, or wind. Talk about things that could happen during a storm, like the fact that the lights or phone might not work. Tell children there are many people who can help them during a disaster, so that they will not be afraid of firemen, policemen, paramedics, or other emergency officials.  Teach children:

  • How to call for help
  • How to shut off utilities (gas, electricity, etc.)
  • When to use emergency numbers; and
  • To call the family contact if they are separated.

Staying Calm in an Emergency

The most important role a parent can play in an emergency situation is to stay calm. Children of all ages can easily pick up on their parents’ fears and anxieties. In a disaster, they’ll look to you for help and for clues on how to act. If you react with alarm, a child may become more scared. If you seem overcome with a sense of loss, a child may feel their losses more strongly. However, experts agree that you should be honest with your children and explain what’s going on. Just be sure to base the amount of information and level of detail on what’s appropriate for their age level.

Children and Their Response to Disaster

Children depend on daily routines: They wake up, eat breakfast, go to school, and play with friends. When emergencies or disasters interrupt this routine, children may become anxious. Not want parents out of their sight/refuse to go to school or daycare. Feel guilty that they caused the disaster by something they said or did. Children’s fears also may stem from their imagination, and you should take these feelings seriously. A child who feels afraid is afraid. Your words and actions can provide reassurance. When talking with your child, be sure to present a realistic picture that is both honest and manageable. Be aware that after a disaster, children are most afraid that:

  • The event will happen again.
  • Someone will be injured or killed
  • They will be separated from the family
  • They will be left alone

Children may be upset over the loss of a favorite toy, blanket, teddy bear or other items that adults might consider insignificant. Undergo a personality change–from being quiet, obedient and caring to loud, noisy and aggressive or from outgoing to shy and afraid. Have nightmares or be afraid to sleep alone or with the light off. Become easily upset, cry or whine. Lose trust in adults because the adults in their life were unable to control the disaster. Revert to younger behavior such as bedwetting and thumb sucking.

Parents should remember that the psychological effects of a natural disaster don’t go away once the emergency has passed. Children can suffer from nightmares or other problems for up to two years after a disaster. Children are able to cope better with a traumatic event if parents, teachers and other adults support and help them with their experiences.

Help should start as soon as possible after the event. Some children may never show distress because they don’t feel upset, while others may not give evidence of being upset for several weeks or even months. Even if children do not show a change in behavior, they may still need your help. Parents should be on the lookout for signs that their kids need some extra counseling.

Talk with children about how they are feeling and listen without judgment. Let them know they can have their own feelings, which might be different than others. Let children take their time to figure things out and to have their feelings. Don’t rush them or pretend that they don’t think or feel as they do. Here are some suggested ways to reduce your child’s fear and anxiety:

  • Keep the family together as much as possible. While you look for housing and assistance, try to keep the family together and make children a part of what you are doing. Otherwise, children could get anxious and worry that their parents won’t return.
  • Calmly and firmly explain the situation. As best as you can, tell children what you know about the disaster. Explain what will happen next. For example, say, “Tonight, we will all stay together in the shelter.” Get down to the child’s eye level and talk to them.
  • Encourage children to talk. Let them talk about the disaster and ask questions as much as they want. Encourage children to describe what they’re feeling. Help them learn to use words that express their feelings, such as happy, sad, angry, mad and scared. Just be sure the words fit their feelings–not yours.
  • Listen to what they say. If possible, include the entire family in the discussion. Reassure them that the disaster was not their fault in any way. Assure fearful children that you will be there to take care of them. Children should not be expected to be brave or tough, or to “not cry.”
  • Include children in recovery activities. Give children chores that are their responsibility. This will help children feel they are part of the recovery. Having a task will help them understand that everything will be all right.
  • Go back as soon as possible to former routines. Maintain a regular schedule for children.
  • Let them have some control, such as choosing what outfit to wear or what meal to have for dinner.
  • Allow special privileges such as leaving the light on when they sleep for a period of time after the disaster.
  • Find ways to emphasize to the children that you love them.

Once you arrive at a shelter, hotel, or a relative’s home, disaster related TV programs should be restricted. News coverage of disasters—especially if children see their own town or school on TV–can be traumatic to children of all ages. If children watch TV coverage of the disaster, parents should watch with them and talk about it afterwards.

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