Preparedness Tips for Parents and Children
Disasters and the threat of terrorism are overwhelming to most adults. These events are even more frightening and confusing for children. There are many things parents, caregivers, schools, communities and physicians can do to calm their fears, answer their questions and help them cope.
Before a disaster:
- Create a family disaster plan. Rehearse each family member’s role in this plan. If your child knows and has practiced what to do, he or she will feel safer and less scared when a crisis occurs.
- Learn about your local school’s or day care center’s disaster plan. Make sure you and your child understand all procedures.
- Teach your child how to recognize danger signals, where to turn for official emergency instructions and where to call for help. Post emergency contact numbers, including 9-1-1, next to every phone in your house.
During and after a disaster:
- Calmly and honestly explain the situation to your child. Explain what you know and what actions your family will take. Reassure them that you will stay with them and keep them safe.
- Encourage children to talk about their feelings and ask questions. Listen to what they say, as a family group if possible. Help young children find words and other ways to express their feelings. Answer their questions as honestly and openly as possible.
- Be supportive of your child’s emotional needs. Reassure him or her that things will get better and that he or she is not responsible for what happened. Hold and hug your child frequently.
- After a disaster, encourage your child to return to normal and fun activities at his or her own pace. Give your child the opportunity to make decisions and plans, and help him or her carry them out.
- Ensure your child maintains a healthy lifestyle that includes a balanced diet, exercise, plenty of sleep, and regular health care. Take care of yourself, too.
- Include children in recovery activities. Giving them responsibilities will make them feel like an important part of the recovery and help them understand that things will get better.
Post-Disaster Activities for Children
- Encourage children to draw, paint pictures, or create sculptures of how they feel and their experiences. Hang them where the child can see them.
- Help them write a story about the event. You might start with: Once upon a time there was a terrible ______ and it scared us all. This is what happened: _______. Be sure to end with “And we are now safe.”
- Create music with instruments, rhythm toys, or common household objects to relieve tension and express creativity.
- Provide “dress up” clothes for children to pretend to be the adults in charge of disaster recovery.
- Help children put on a puppet show or play for family and neighbors about what they experienced.
- Read stories about disasters to and with children.
Disaster Mental Health and Children
A child’s reaction to a crisis will depend on his or her age, whether he or she has experienced trauma in the past and how involved or close he or she was to the disaster. Children may fear the event will occur again.
It is expected that a child may develop some short-term traumatic stress symptoms after a disaster, however these will usually decrease over time. Parents are urged to be alert to signs of trouble such as the following long-term symptoms:
- Children age 5 or younger: Crying more than usual, clinging and fear of being separated from a parent, nightmares, excessive fear of the dark or of being alone, changing appetites, and returning to outgrown behaviors such as bed-wetting and thumb-sucking
- Children age 5-11: Anxiety, irritability, aggression, disruptive behavior, trouble paying attention, avoidance of school, sleep problems, competition with siblings for parents’ attention, whining, withdraw from peers, and lost interest in normal activities
- Children age 11-19: Flashbacks, nightmares, emotional numbing, depression, substance abuse, antisocial behavior, rebellion, physical problems, apathy, extreme guilt and sleep disturbance
If your child does not appear to slowly recover after a disaster, seek the help of your family doctor, counselor, clergy member or mental health specialist. Your county mental health agency or behavioral health managed care organization are good resources.