Children need a sense of safety and security in a disaster
Encourage kids to talk about the disaster and their feelings
Routines can provide a semblance of normalcy
Regressive behavior can be expected
Small children can be particularly vulnerable when natural disasters strike.
They may be unable to understand what turned their lives and those of their families upside down. They may be confused, angry, fearful or saddened – and that may manifest itself in behavior such as bed-wetting, sleep problems and separation anxiety, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
In a disaster, children are most afraid the event will happen again, they will lose someone close to them or they will be left alone or separated from their family, FEMA says.
Jane Farish, a retired lecturer in child development at Stanford University and author of “When Disaster Strikes: Helping Young Children Cope,” offers these tips for parents and caregivers seeking to help their young children deal with the aftermath of a disaster.
1. Children need to be with their family and to feel safe.
Physical reassurance is a great comfort for children. You can give your child a sense of security by physically holding and reassuring them. Use simple sentences, such as, “We are all safe now” or “I will take care of you.”
If your family is in a shelter or somewhere other than home, it’s important to remain together so children feel safe and secure. Displaced children will require more physical comforting and reassurance.
2. Children regain a sense of control by talking about the disaster.
Refrain from telling your child the disaster is “nothing to be afraid of.” Instead, listen to their worries and acknowledge their feelings.
You may gently express your own concerns: “I was worried too when the lights went out” – but follow up with comforting words, such as: “But I was glad we had a flashlight.” Children need to know that their parents understand and share their worries, but it’s best to wrap up the conversation in a positive way.
3. It’s important to talk to children honestly.
At the same time, too much information can be scary and confusing to young children.
Since parents and caregivers often have their own feelings to deal with, this can be a delicate issue. Parents must distinguish between their own and their children’s feelings. It is essential that children are not burdened with the full extent of their parents’ or caregivers’ worries. Share worries in an age-appropriate way.
4. Remain as calm as possible; maintain routines as much as you can.
Adult conversations about the disaster should be reserved for after children have gone to bed or out of their earshot.
Observe usual meal and bedtime rituals, even if there is no light or water. Routines can help provide a sense of security.
If children’s schools and daycare centers are open, keep their routine. Do not keep children at home, but expect them to be more clingy and suffer from more separation anxiety.
5. Expect regressive behavior.
Children may begin sucking their thumbs, wetting the bed, and they may become afraid of being left alone. In general, regressive behaviors will go away in the days, weeks and months following the disaster.
If children’s fears or anxious behaviors persist or if children suffer from delayed reactions, parents should seek professional counseling.