Natural Disasters—Helping Your Child to Cope
EARTHQUAKES, tornadoes, fires, floods, hurricanes—how helpless we are when faced with nature’s fury! Adults often find that it may be years before the frightening mental images etched by experiencing a natural disaster begin to fade. Not surprisingly, children may need extra help to recover from such experiences.
The U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) notes that immediately after a disaster, children typically fear that (1) they will be left alone, (2) they will be separated from the family, (3) the event will happen again, and (4) someone will be injured or killed. What can you as a parent do to reduce your child’s anxiety in the aftermath of a disaster? FEMA makes these recommendations.*
Try to keep the family together. Staying together provides reassurance to your child and alleviates his fear of being abandoned. It is better not to leave children with relatives or friends or at an evacuation center while you look for assistance. “Children get anxious,” observes FEMA, “and they’ll worry that parents won’t return.” Should you have to go somewhere, take your child along if at all possible. That way your “child is less likely to develop clinging behavior.”
Take time to explain the situation calmly and firmly. Tell your child what you know about the disaster. If necessary, repeat your explanation several times. Outline what will happen next. For example, you may say, ‘Tonight we will all stay together in the shelter.’ Talk to children at their eye level, kneeling down if needed.
Encourage your child to talk. “Communication is most helpful in reducing the child’s anxiety,” FEMA points out. Listen to what each child tells you about the disaster and his fears. (Compare James 1:19.) Tell him that it is normal to be frightened. If your child seems reluctant to express himself, let him know that you are afraid. Doing so may make it easier for him to express his own fears, thereby reducing his anxiety. (Compare Proverbs 12:25.) “If possible, include the entire family in the discussion.”
Include children in cleanup activities. When cleaning up and repairing the house, assign children their own chores. “Having a task will help them understand that everything will be all right.” A very small child, however, usually needs special attention. FEMA explains: “Such a child may need more physical care, more holding; and this makes it harder for parents to attend to the other things that should be done. Unfortunately, there is no short-cut. If the child’s needs are not met, the problem will persist for a longer period.”
One final point should be kept in mind. FEMA advises parents: “Ultimately, you should decide what’s best for your children.” Applying these guidelines could help you make the best of a difficult situation.
Taken from the publications Helping Children Cope With Disaster and Coping With Children’s Reactions to Hurricanes and Other Disasters, published by FEMA.