During preparation time, at the occurrence of, and in the aftermath of natural disasters such as hurricanes, children are likely to experience fear and anxiety, manifested by moderate to intense periods of hyperactivity, distraction, clinging to parents, excessive talking and sometimes regression of learned behaviors such as toilet training and sleeping in their own bed.
During times of disasters children's fears can stem from their imaginations, and adults should take their feelings seriously. Words, actions, and expressions of love can provide reassurance to a child who feels afraid. When talking to your child, be sure to present a realistic picture that is honest, calming, and understandable.
Be aware that after a disaster, children most fear that:
- They will be separated from family, and they will be left alone
- The event will happen again
- Someone will be injured or killed
- Their house will be destroyed
Assemble a kit for children to include:
- A few favorite books, crayons and paper
- Puzzles, a board game, deck of cards
- Two favorite small toys, such as a doll or action figure, a stuffed animal
- Favorite blanket, pillow
- Pictures of family and pets
- Other special items that will comfort children
Children's immunizations should be up-to date
An up to date vaccination schedule protects them from vaccine-preventable diseases, including an unexpected outbreak during a disaster.
- Keep a copy of your children's complete immunization histories in your disaster kit attached to the family emergency information.
- All family members should also record the date of their last tetanus-diphtheria shot in this record as well.
Communicating with children about natural disasters
As a parent, it is important to know that behavioral and psychological changes associated with this type of events are usually temporary, and can be prevented to some extent, by observing the following recommendations.
The American Academy of Pediatrics has issued the following recommendations for parents providing them with guidance on how to talk to children before, during or after a disaster. Here are some of them:
- It is important to communicate to children that the family circle is strong.
- Talk to children calmly and clearly about natural disasters.
- In the event of hurricanes, tornadoes or tropical storms, let them know that there will be strong winds, lightning and thunder, heavy rains and possible flooding.
- Reassure them that it takes preparation to have everything necessary on hand, but that the most important thing is to remain safe.
- Don’t ignore children during hurricane preparation time. Make them part of the plan by gathering their favorite belongings (i.e. colored pencils, books, favorite small toys, pajamas, etc.) in a bag or box. This process keeps them busy, and makes them feel part of preparation efforts.
- Adolescents, in particular, can be hard hit by this type of disaster. Parents should watch for signs such as sleep disturbances, fatigue, lack of pleasure in activities previously enjoyed and illicit substance abuse
- Avoid queries and unnecessary arguments. These only serve to add stress to the situation
- Remain calmed it will help in decision making, and it shows children you are in control giving them a sense of reassurance.
- Explain to children that the passage of a hurricane last only a few hours, and reinforce the fact that the family will remain together during this time.
- Avoid overexposing children to the media and to repeatedly viewing footage of destruction and /or traumatic events. Provide supervision while children are watching disaster events on television and help them understand what they are viewing.
- Encourage discussion so that you can learn about their fears. If your child has a favorite doll, teddy bear or an imaginary friend, ask them to repeat to them your explanation of what is about to happen reassuring you that they have a clear understanding about hurricanes.
- Find a safe spot (a room free of windows or outside doors) where you and your family can gather during the passage of the storm. Make this area as pleasant and fun as possible by referring to it as a “camping spot”.
- During the storm allow children to use their belongings so that they are occupied with activities. Praying, reading a book, playing together and reassurance help children get through this frightening experience.
- If your family is seeking shelter, make sure pets are left in a safe place and involve children in the process. Reassure them that leaving the house is just a SAFETY measure, and that you will returning as soon as the storm has cleared.
- Gather any medications needed for your child and family members and place them in a Ziploc bag. Keep this bag with you at all times.
- During and after the storm, telephone communication may be disrupted. Keep your cellular phone charged and with you at all times. Place a list of emergency numbers such as your pediatrician, family physician, police and fire rescue in your medication bag.
- Prepare your children, once the storm is over, and before going outdoors for the aftermath. Talk to them about trees that have gone down, broken windows, houses that may have collapsed, electric cables, etc. Reassure children of the fact that these are expected consequences of the storm and all this damage can be restored in due time.
- If your house suffered damage from the storm, start the rebuilding process in the most safe and prompt manner.
- Avoid crying and emotional outbursts in the presence of children. In a child's mind these events represent a tragedy, and your calmness and optimism assures them of a quick return to “normal” activities.
- Pick up pets in animal shelters as soon as circumstances allow.
- During the rebuilding process, make sure to clear your garden of debris first to ensure the children have a safe area for play if weather permits.
- In the event of flooding, do not allow your child to swim, or walk in flooded areas. These waters may be contaminated, and may carry debris that can be harmful.
- Remember your Patience, Assuranceand Love (PAL) are probably the most important preventive measures to guide your children through a natural disaster!
Florida Emergency Information Line: 1-800-342-3557
Public Information Emergency Support Function: 850-921-0384
For additional information contact: Nicklaus Children's Hospital, Department of Psychiatry