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Helping Children Cope with Natural Disasters

By Karen Stephens
Children never need adults’ calm resolve more than during a crisis. Among the most stressful events are uncontrollable natural disasters that disrupt homes, child care centers, and all semblance of a stable daily routine. Disasters such as raging fires, floods, devastating hurricanes, tsunamis, tornados, or earthquakes wreak physical as well as emotional havoc. With responsive parents and child care professionals as role models and coaches, children can learn to cope constructively as they face disaster-related fear, insecurity, and confusion. Listed below are tips to put into practice. Experiencing disaster is harrowing; but surviving tough times together reaffirms a family’s love, loyalty, and sense of resilience.

Tips for Responding to Children during a Disaster
• Remain as calm as possible. Give children a constructive example to follow. Children will be extremely sensitive to your actions as well as words. • To get children’s quick cooperation, give them clear, simple directions according to their age and development. • Reassure children they’re not forgotten in the chaos. Let your actions convince them their safety and security are your top priority. Be honest and specific about actions you will take to protect them. Lying to children erodes trust. Focus on what you can control. • Explain disaster-related terms children hear in simple, understandable, and ageappropriate language. For instance, amidst fires in the U.S., children will need immediate help with terms such as: evacuation, evacuees, firestorm, fire jumps, air quality, drought, combustible material, Santa Ana winds (and even “Devil” winds), state of emergency, and Federal disaster area. In fact, children around the world hearing news coverage of the fire disaster will need help grasping those terms. • Children may understand some facts, but be confused by others. Listen carefully and clear up misconceptions to reduce anxiety. Respond to children’s questions calmly. Giving too little information can confuse children; likewise, giving them too much information can overwhelm them. • Be patient if children repeat the same questions. Children grasp abstract concepts slowly. Repeated questions is their way of trying to get a clear picture of events, including the sequence and reasons for them. If children don’t ask questions, don’t assume they aren’t worried. Ask an open-ended question to encourage communication. Example: “I’m wondering if you’re afraid the fire could reach our house.” • Validate feelings children share about confusion or anger and avoid belittling those feelings. Example: “We are all worried the fire will spread. People are doing all they can to keep people safe.”

If children don’t ask questions, don’t assume they aren’t worried.

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• In the wake of disaster, and during continued media coverage, maintain basic, predictable routines as much as possible. Nutrition, sleep and play routines, along with old-fashioned TLC, like reading stories together, help children feel more calm and safe. • Limit children’s exposure to news media covering the crisis. A child’s fertile imagination spins dramatic visuals for events described. To complicate things for young children, seeing is believing. They struggle separating fact from fantasy. With constant replays of news coverage, children can form terrifying misconceptions. • Once settled away from a disaster site, plan soothing activities to calm and distract children’s attention from disaster coverage. Turn off the television and radio when young kids are present. To help children maintain perspective, limit constant re-hashing of a crisis during family conversations. • Provide ways for children to safely express their feelings. For young children this may include drawing, finger-painting, singing, kneading play dough, blowing bubbles, puppetry, or dress-up play. Older children are often helped through poetry, story or letter writing, dictating or keeping a journal diary, or talking with friends if communication tools are available. • Children benefit from concrete ways of helping victims. Helping others builds children’s self-confidence and potential for compassion. It also combats feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. Contact your local emergency response agency, such as Red Cross or Salvation Army, to see how your family can help others. For instance, children not affected by the disaster can share extra clothing or toys with evacuated children.

Provide ways for children to safely express their feelings. For young children this may include drawing, finger-painting, singing, etc.
• If you become overwhelmed by a crisis, find others to whom you can privately and confidentially express anxiety. By getting emotional help for yourself, you’ll be better able to support your children.

Symptoms of Children Over-Stressed by Crisis
During times of unrelenting stress, children’s behavior or attitude may change. If such signs don’t reduce over time, or increase, consider taking children for counseling to help them make sense of reality. Symptoms calling for skilled help include: changes in sleep patterns, appetite, or energy level; bedwetting; regression in toilet training; regression to thumb sucking; uncharacteristic separation problems from parents; excessive whining and irritability; long-term poor concentration; unusual, persistent aggression; and apathy, isolation, and depression. Books for Parents and Others Helping Children Bad Stuff in the News: A guide to handling the headlines by Marc Gellman and Thomas Hartman (New York: Sea Star Books, 2002) A Reassuring Children’s Book The Place I Know: Poems of Comfort selected by Georgia Heard (Cambridge, MA: Candlewick Press, 2002)

About the Author — Karen Stephens is director of Illinois State University Child Care Center and instructor in child development for the ISU Family and Consumer Sciences Department. For nine years she wrote a weekly parenting column in her local newspaper. Karen has authored early care and education books and is a frequent contributor to Exchange.
© Karen Stephens 2007

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