Helping Children Cope with Disaster - FEMA 478Earthquakes... Tornadoes... Fires... Floods... Hurricanes... Hazardous Materials Spills... Disasters may strike quickly and without warning. These events can be frightening for adults, but they are traumatic for children if they don't know what to do.
During a disaster, your family may have to leave your home and daily routine. Children may become anxious, confused or frightened. As an adult, you'll need to cope with the disaster in a way that will help children avoid developing a permanent sense of loss. It is important to give children guidance that will help them reduce their fears.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the American Red Cross have prepared this material to help you help your children cope. Ultimately, you should decide what's best for your children, but consider using these suggestions as guidelines.
In a disaster, they'll look to you and other adults for help. How you react to an emergency gives them clues on how to act. If you react with alarm, a child may become more scared. They see our fear as proof that the danger is real. If you seem overcome with a sense of loss, a child may feel their losses more strongly.
Children's fears also may stem from their imagination, and you should take these feelings seriously. A child who feels afraid is afraid. Your words and actions can provide reassurance. When talking with your child, be sure to present a realistic picture that is both honest and manageable.
Feelings of fear are healthy and natural for adults and children. But as an adult, you need to keep control of the situation. When you're sure that danger has passed, concentrate on your child's emotional needs by asking the child what's uppermost in his or her mind. Having children participate in the family's recovery activities will help them feel that their life will return to "normal." Your response during this time may have a lasting impact.
Be aware that after a disaster, children are most afraid that:
The stress caused by a disaster can affect children more than anyone, according to mental health experts. Anxiety results from the loss of possessions, disruption to family life and a sense of a hostile world created by disaster. Parents are urged to be alert to signs of trouble such as the following:
Children five or younger: Watch for such behaviors as crying more than usual, clinging, nightmares, excessive fear of the dark or of animals or of being alone, changing appetites, or returning to outgrown behaviors such as bed-wetting or thumb-sucking.
Children age 5-11: May show anxiety, irritability or aggression and competition with siblings for parents' attention. They may whine, withdraw from peers or lose interest in normal activities.
Children age 11-18: May show outright rebellion, physical problems, apathy or sleep disturbance
Develop and practice a Family Disaster Plan. Contact your local emergency management or civil defense office, or your local Red Cross chapter for materials that describe how your family can create a disaster plan. Everyone in the household, including children, should play apart in the family's response and recovery efforts.
Teach your child how to recognize danger signals. Make sure your child knows what smoke detectors, fire alarms and local community warning systems (horns, sirens) sound like.
Explain how to call for help. Teach your child how and when to call for help. Check the telephone directory for local emergency phone numbers and post these phone numbers by all telephones. If you live in a 9-1-1 service area, tell your child to call 9-1-1.
Help your child memorize important family information. Children should memorize their family name, address and phone number. They should also know where to meet in case of an emergency. Some children may not be old enough to memorize the information. They should carry a small index card that lists emergency information to give to an adult or babysitter.
Keep the family together. while you look for housing and assistance, you may want to leave your children with relatives or friends. Instead, keep the family together as much as possible and make children a part of what you are doing to get the family back on its feet. Children get anxious, and they'll worry that their parents won't return.
Calmly and Firmly explain the situation. as best as you can, tell children what you know about the disaster. Explain what will happen next. For example, say, "Tonight, we will all stay together in the shelter." Get down to the child's eye level and talk to them.
Encourage children to talk. Let children talk about the disaster and ask questions as much as they want. Encourage children to describe what they're feeling. Listen to what they say. If possible, include the entire family in the discussion.
Include children in recovery activities. Give children chores that are their responsibility. This will help children feel they are part of the recovery. Having a task will help them understand that everything will be all right
You can help children cope by understanding what causes their anxieties and fears. Reassure them with firmness and love. Your children will realize that life will eventually return to normal. If a child does not respond to the above suggestions, seek help from a mental health specialist or a member of the clergy.
This information was obtained from the American Red Cross pamphlet ARC 4499
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