Helping children during a natural disaster
While a natural disaster is unfolding, children need help to support their emotional regulation. Sitting with them, talking quietly, reading stories and singing songs can be reassuring.
“If there’s a potentially dangerous situation and you need to keep watch, or evacuate, take the time to help your child feel safe. Explain where the family is going, and talk about what you’re taking with you,’ Dr Baldwin suggests.
During a natural disaster, young children may be unsettled by unfamiliar sights, sounds and smells.
“Listen to what your child’s behaviour is telling you about their concerns,” Dr Baldwin says.
“You can say things like, ‘Yes, aren’t those sirens noisy? The fire truck is telling cars to get out of the way, so the truck can get to the fire quickly. And that plane is dumping water to help put out the flames. It’s great that so many people are helping’.”
If evacuation is likely, make sure you’re prepared. Pack important items and keep them handy so you can leave quickly. Involve your child in this – their favourite toy, book or blanket will be a great comfort in an unfamiliar place.
Helping children recover after natural disasters
While families face many challenges after experiencing a natural disaster, some simple strategies help children cope. Although it’s hard to maintain normal family routines while living away from home, Dr Baldwin says it’s good to try.
“Aim for the usual bedtime and naptimes, with the usual song or story,” she advises. “Familiar people, objects, rituals and foods are all reassuring.”
In the recovery phase, Dr Baldwin encourages parents to let children know there’s no wrong way to feel and no wrong thing to say.
“Children communicate through their behaviour, especially little ones. They might be clingy or whiney, have tantrums, cry and be difficult to soothe. They might eat or sleep more or less than usual. They might even seem to ‘go backwards’ in their talking or toileting. These are all normal reactions to an unusual and stressful situation,” she says.
Being extra patient will help.
“Don’t go so far that you let go of normal rules and expectations, but just be understanding about those behaviours, knowing they are generally temporary,” Dr Baldwin says.
Parents may also need to help children understand that what happened wasn’t their fault.
“Three-year-olds are prone to magical thinking. After a cyclone they might think, ‘I yelled at mummy and then a big wind came’,” Dr Baldwin says.
Children benefit from knowing there will be a beginning, middle and end to the situation, and that ultimately things are going to be okay.
“You can acknowledge that while everything seems chaotic at the moment, life will go back to normal again, and adults will take responsibility for fixing things,” Dr Baldwin says.
She notes that anniversaries can be distressing for young children: they may see TV footage and think it’s all happening again.
Lastly, but importantly, through the stress of a natural disaster, parents need to take care of themselves.
“Your own big feelings are valid and important, but remember your child can’t help you with them. Talk with an adult you trust – a friend or health professional. It’s important to look after yourself: you can’t care for others, including children, when you’re running on empty,” Dr Baldwin says.