Earthquakes, fires, floods, tornadoes and even unemployment can cause the loss of your home and disruption to your normal way of life. This is frightening and confusing to adults but much more traumatic for young children and even teens, who do not yet understand challenges, and will feel lost – as though their world will never again be “normal”. We often cannot control a crisis in our life, but we can plan to deal with one.
Following a disaster we are so concerned with the physical well-being of family members that we often overlook their emotional and spiritual health. A crisis does not need to be a time we look back on with loathing but can rather be remembered as a time for personal growth and increased family unity.
Fear is normal following any disaster. After 9/11 many feared flying, others big cities, still others feared those of other faiths or nationalities. For children there are other fears. Parents need to understand that these fears are also normal. Children fear being abandoned, a re-occurrence of the disaster, injury and death.
We encourage children to develop their imaginations. We encourage them to set goals and to dream of what their future will be. Following a disaster these good childlike qualities will cause them to fantasize future events which are far worse than the event they have just experienced. Parents must understand this is normal and they must plan for this. Very young children cannot distinguish between reality and their imaginations. Anything they imagine becomes possible.
Children will be afraid to be left alone. They will fear being separated from family. They will be afraid to visit the doctor if they have experienced death during the crisis. Even children who are normally very independent will experience these unfamiliar characteristics. It is difficult when dealing with relief agencies, insurance claims, clean up and rebuilding to deal with children constantly at your side. There will be a temptation to leave them with others. If your child protests you need to be prepared to take them everywhere you go until this insecurity has passed.
A child’s fear is a real fear and adults must understand that your child would like nothing more than to be rid of the fear.
Children may revert to behaviors they have outgrown. They may become aggressive or very quiet and withdrawn. All of this is normal. Punishing, mocking or criticizing their fears will only lengthen the time it takes to heal. Do not allow older children to behave in a negative way toward their younger siblings. Help them to understand what younger children are feeling.
Adults need to be aware of their own reactions. Remember, children learn as much from watching your actions as they do from your reassuring words. If adults are expressing fear and anxiety the children will magnify these fears in their own minds.
What can a parent do to help their child?
1. Keep the family together. This provides reassurance that they will be protected and cared for.
2. Communicate your fears. Express what you are feeling to your children. Share a little of your own fears and assure them you know your family will work together and survive and thrive. Help them to understand that fear is normal. Make statements such as: “I know you are afraid” or “I know it is scary right now”. Your child may act out their fears as they play. Watch for this and learn from these episodes and address them.
3. Give thanks. Say things such as: “We are all together and we are all safe, isn’t that great?” Help them to verbalize what there is to be thankful for. Communicating well and often is the greatest gift you can provide during this time of readjustment.
4. Include your child in clean up activities. Use care not to expose them to dangerous situations but let them be part of the solution as your family works toward normalcy. They can sweep, rake, take care of siblings, or deliver food and water to the adults. The task can be small but they should remain involved in the process. They should be made to feel that the family is moving forward because they are helping.
5. Reestablish some normal activities such as family home evening, family prayer, and scripture study.
6. Continue bedtime routines such as reading a favorite book or two. Children may fear being away from parents at bedtime. They may fear the dark. It may be necessary to allow children to sleep in the same room with parents or older siblings as they learn to deal with their new reality.
7. Eat together. Adults may be consumed with clean up and all manner of activities to reclaim their former lives. Always take a break from your tasks to eat together.
8. Give your children the gift of agency. Allow them to begin making decisions. Should we have spaghetti or tacos for dinner? “It’s your job to make sure dad and the helpers have water when they need it. Do you think they may need it now?”
9. Alert their teachers in school and church regarding the fears and anxieties your child is feeling. Often there are school counselors who can help.
10. Play. Take time every day to toss around the football, play a board game, take a bike ride or just have fun together and put all the hassles on hold for an hour or two.
What can you do now to prepare?
1. Assemble a survival kit (they used to be called ’72 hour kits’, now we know they should be more like ‘120 hour kits’) for every family member. Every child who can walk should have their own kit. There are very small backpacks which are perfect for toddlers and can accommodate a favorite toy, an energy bar, a pouch of water and a glow stick and whistle. A child will feel much more secure when they have their own things, just like every other family member.
2. Add comfort foods to your food storage. Ask your children for their suggestions of favorite meals, snacks and dessert. Be sure you have options that can be prepared without electricity and without adding water. If you have canned peaches in your food storage you can use the juice to make up a brownie mix, but dehydrated foods would take much more liquid to be prepared.
3. Discuss disaster and disaster plans. Hold fire drills both during the day and at night. Hold an evacuation drill, pack the car, and head out to get an ice cream cone as a reward. If your children are aware that people are losing their jobs, discuss what you would do if dad or mom lost their job. Do not be afraid to discuss the possibilities. Be prayerful and present this in a way that is designed to be an adventure.
Disasters will happen. Children will be afraid, very afraid. Prepare now to comfort and reassure them, so that when or if the worst happens – your family will survive and thrive.
If you missed Carolyn’s radio show, Ready Or Not last Tuesday night with Scot and Maurine Proctor the show is available anytime as a download. Be sure to listen and also to check out the effort to build an American style hospital in Haiti by January 2011. It’s easy to help. go to https://gifthaiti.org for more information. Next week Jim will return to discuss the tricks for maneuvering through the insurance maze and rebuilding after a disaster. That’s October 19th 6:00pm Pacific Time.
If you are in Utah or nearby plan now to join Carolyn on November 5th and 6th at the Salt Lake City Self Reliance Expo. Carolyn will have a booth with her latest book along with her other publications. She will also be teaching classes on the stage both days. Check out the details at https://blog.TotallyReady.com. Be sure to stop by the booth and introduce yourself.