No matter where you live in the world, at some point you’ll likely face at least one type of natural disaster, whether it’s a simple thunderstorm, a long power outage from a snowstorm, flooding, an earthquake, or even a house fire. Such events can be stressful and traumatic for adults. As parents, we also worry about protecting our kids and helping them get through natural disasters.
I live in Houston, and in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, we have a lot of work for both physical and emotional recovery. In the process, we can’t forget our kids are recovering from trauma as well.
Believe it or not, helping your kids through a natural disaster starts long before the natural disaster strikes. Create an emergency plan in advance and discuss it as a family. When or if a disaster comes, hopefully you and your children can act more quickly, calmly, and efficiently.
Michaela Fuller, a Houston resident and mother of three, often talked about her family’s contingency plans over the phone with out-of-town family. One day, as she told her children to put on their shoes quickly and get in the car, her son asked, “Is it time to abandon the house?” Although young, he was aware of the plan and wanted to make sure his family followed it to keep them safe.
Sometimes even the best laid plans don’t fully prepare you. In the case of Hurricane Harvey, although weather experts knew it would be extreme, they couldn’t predict how badly the rainfall and flooding would affect the Houston community. However, a family emergency plan gives you a better chance during a crisis.
Sometimes you can make the situation light and fun. If you're seeking shelter from a tornado at night, collect everyone for a family sleepover. During power outages, bust out the board games and get creative with games and food recipes. Obviously, try to stay appropriate with jokes or light discussion about the situation according to what you and your children can handle and the severity of the natural disaster.
As a Houstonian whose house wasn’t flooded in Harvey, I’ve been aiding my neighbors and friends in Houston muck out their homes. Some of the homeowners I’ve met, while devastated to lose so much, joked that they had too much stuff anyway. They smiled and focused on what they did have. It has boosted everyone’s morale.
Although I appreciated seeing lighthearted footage of people kayaking in the Harvey flooding, I winced seeing people, especially kids, swim in it. With debris of all kinds (including sewage), alligators or snakes in the water, and the potential of getting swept away, it isn’t worth the risk of getting sick, hurt, or killed just to amuse yourself.
According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) young children feel most insecure about being left alone and getting separated from their loved ones. As the natural disaster occurs and also afterwards, try to keep your children physically close to you. Hug them and verbally reassure them you’re all together and safe.
That being said, after the disaster, try to resume your normal routine as much as possible. Continue normal bedtimes as you are able. As daycares and schools reopens, return to routines that are comforting to children, but be aware that children will likely be extra clingy and need extra care and reassurance.
In accordance with their ages, communicate to your children the facts of the situation both during and after. In many instances, they need to know the facts so they can use the plan you’ve created or at least understand what’s going on. Many sources, including FEMA, recommend limiting media exposure and conversations that children may overhear to content appropriate for their ages, their sensitivities, or your specific situations to prevent any further trauma.
Also, let them express their feelings honestly. You feel fear and should talk about it with another adult, so let your children do the same with you or a counselor. Their feelings are just as valid, and talking about them will help children heal after a crisis.
As helpless as you feel in a potentially devastating situation, remember that children likely feel even more so. According to the National Association for the Education of Young Children, adults need to try to give children power over at least a few daily choices so they have some control over their lives. It can be as little as what game to play or song to sing next. Any amount of control you can give them only adds to feelings of security.
As with just about any topic in life, there are children’s books about facing and recovering from natural disasters. Some include familiar characters children know and love, such as Clifford, while others include no words at all. Choose whichever ones you think will be the most helpful for your children.
Allow and encourage your children to participate in the physical recovery process in age-appropriate ways. Although seeing their own belongings destroyed can be heartbreaking for anyone, older children can feel closure and a sense of control if they're the ones throwing out their damaged possessions or at least contributing to the cleanup effort.
Especially for kids and families who weren’t affected by natural disasters, encourage your children to join the aid effort for other families. Showing compassion increases gratitude and awareness of the needs of others. I’ve worked alongside several teenagers mucking out houses, and they have shown amazing work ethic to help those in need. Other kids went door-to-door delivering lunches for those of us working in houses. The kindness we’ve seen has brought so much unity and support in our community, and our children should see and be part of it as much as possible.
If children have been directly or indirectly affected by a natural disaster, they may regress to younger behavior such as bed-wetting, separation anxiety, or thumb sucking. Sometimes when they lack the ability to verbally express their feelings, children can develop negative behaviors such as aggression, depression, and others.
As you spend more time with your children, reassuring them that you are all together and safe and listening to their concerns and feelings, those behaviors should subside in the days, weeks, or months after the events.
If regressive behavior or symptoms of PTSD continue – or just to supplement your own efforts to help your children cope – please consider seeking professional counseling for yourself and your children. Many agencies provide resources and guidance for children’s mental health recovery.
Even if you decide you don’t want a counselor’s help, still use a support network to buoy up you and your children, including friends, family, your kids’ teachers, and other community members. The road to recovery for those who endure major disasters is long, expensive, and difficult. If you have weathered a natural disaster, it doesn’t have to fall on your shoulders alone to heal and sustain your family.