Natural Disaster Recovery Guide-Part 2: Kids

Kids and Natural Disasters

By Dwight Bain

How does a critical incident like this affect kids?
It depends on the age of the child. The younger the child, the more they look to their parents for emotional security and strength. If a Mom or Dad are “shell-shocked" or “numb” and not able to manage their own emotions or responsibilities; the child will feel that pressure and become very confused and further stressed. Remember, it's normal to be overwhelmed by a major disaster. This is why it's so important to take care of yourself in order to take care of your children and those your care about through the long period of recovery and rebuilding after the storm.


Think about the advice given on commercial airliners to parents traveling with small children. “Should there be an unexpected cabin de-pressurization; oxygen masks will drop from the ceiling. Place the mask over your nose and mouth like this and then place the mask over the mouth and nose of those around you needing assistance.” Take care of your own emotional needs first, and then you will be in a stronger position to help those around you. If you feel overwhelmed in giving your children or others who may depend on you for support, please ask for help. It's okay to be tired, worn out and overly stressed. That's normal after a natural disaster. However, it's not okay to ignore caring for the needs of those counting on you like children, the elderly or pets. Sometimes a parent may need to make adjustments at work or change their own schedules for a while by delegating some tasks in order to have time and energy to help their children avoid feeling more pressure from the difficult experience that surviving a major disaster brings. If you feel that your caregiver ‘tank’ is empty, let someone else help you for a while until you get your strength back. That's best for you and for those that you care about.


When you can focus and dedicate attention to understanding the needs of young children, notice what they are saying, drawing or doing to determine if they are still feeling overly stressed from the storm.


School age kids need to talk, draw pictures or take positive action, (like having a lemonade stand to raise money for kids just like them who are now storm victims because their homes were destroyed), so if you give them something to do to help, they can take positive action and sort through their emotions immediately.


High school age kids may try to act "cool" about everything, but often are more scared about the changes, losses and confusion than any other group. They are older and may need to experience a bit more "reality" at times to loosen up their ability to talk about what is happening around them. If they are willing to talk to their siblings, other family members, clergy or counselors it often doesn’t take very long before they can grow strong enough to deal with their emotions and get back to feeling like themselves again.

The greatest danger sign to be alert and aware of is by noticing any dramatic changes in behavior. If a child was always happy go lucky before the storm and now sits all day to watch video footage of the world’s disasters on the news or weather channels- then you may want to figure out why they made such a dramatic shift in personality. Watch for other major changes in sleep patterns, school patterns, school performance, peer relations and so on. If you see major changes that concern you, it's time to seek professional attention for the child with their pediatrician or with a child behavioral specialist


What are some ways to help our kids talk about storm stress?You can reach out to children in many ways to help them deal with this stressful time of rebuilding after the storm. Talking, writing, drawing, even making up a song about the experience with the disaster will make the time pass more quickly, and may even lighten someone else's load of emotional pain and difficulty while helping you back through the process. Some families even play board games like the "worst case scenario," (which is based on actual survival information from a book by the same name). Many of the issues discussed in the game aren't likely to happen to the majority of people on the planet, (such as how to survive a shark attack), however, talking about any crisis event in life can help kids learn the basics of moving from the panic of basic survival to building strengths through problem solving.


Are there any “hidden dangers” in media that parents should be concerned about that might make the storm stress worse?
Too much media exposure is dangerous for kids. It is better to get a media "news update" once or perhaps at the most, twice a day to avoid the danger of media over-exposure. Leaving the news on all the time will depress the mood of the person who hears it; since deep down inside we learn to go "numb" to the normal emotions of the stressful event, to press on and burn reserve energy in the process. If your child didn't watch the morning news programs before the hurricane or tornadoes hit, be cautious about allowing them to watch TV news alone or having long blocks of unaccounted time with too much isolation. Best is to sort through media outlets-like television, Internet, radio or newspapers, which may contain content that is overly stressful or just too depressing for a child. Then set boundaries to protect them from additional stress in media stories, since it is important to protect their home and minds by managing the media around them.


It's wise to move from negatives to positives in highly charged and difficult situations like storm recovery. We have all seen enough negative images to last a lifetime and yet the media will often play scenes from a disaster over again and again. Also, parents and kids can sit down and discuss why they really need to have so many media and entertainment services available in their homes. Many families found that not having the Internet, cable television and loud music playing in their homes all the time while being without electricity after the storm allowed them to reconnect as a family with much greater communication. By sitting down and discussing these issues your home can be a more positive place, by creating more positive energy to mange the stress of recovering from this crisis situation.


Since watching other peoples problems in other parts of the country will cause more stress in an already stressful situation it's better to focus on your responsibilities today, right here in your own community. When things in your life are strong again, you and your family won't be as affected by the images of crisis from other places. But that's another day, so for now as you recover, it’s better to focus on getting you and your kids though the day that you have been handed without making it harder because of the hidden stress of media overexposure.


Also, the same principles apply for the aged as for anyone else. Seniors often can spend a tremendous amount of time in front of negative media images which can be harmful to their wellbeing. Better to get involved in helping others, praying for those affected or donating to help as you can than to become overwhelmed with the stressors of others by becoming desensitized from media over-exposure.


Is it wise to involve kids in the clean up and recovery process?
If it is physically safe for everyone, ** I encourage the entire family to visit their damaged home together. It is okay to do clean up and recovery work together as well, since this storm is bigger than any one person could clean up anyway. Stressful events like this can make a marriage or family stronger than ever, because instead of just one person dealing with the loss, the entire family can join in to deal with it together. It's wrong to play the “hero” and try to do everything by yourself as a parent or legal guardian for children because it models being a lone ranger during a crisis.


The ‘lone ranger’ mentality eventually leads to someone becoming the ‘lonely ranger’ because you can't get through a crisis alone, nor should you try. We need each other more than ever to successfully manage crisis events like natural disasters. Another reason why this is so important is that viewing the destruction firsthand, (obviously in age appropriate ways), is one of the best ways to allow children to see how dangerous storms can be. And the most important reason to model this behavior to our younger kids is because they learn from their earliest childhood that families who stick together through the entire process can get through it better and faster than those who go it alone.


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*IMPORTANT NOTICE! *
Think about the term, “childproofed home” as you determine what environment would be safe for your youngest children or grandchildren to be walking through or around. If they normally aren't around power tools or gas powered construction equipment like generators or chain-saws, then this is not the time to introduce them to it. Be safe and don't make a stressful situation worse by risking physical injury to yourself, your children or those you care about.

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On another note, keep your repair work in perspective with your life priorities. Remember that it is impossible to fix everything in a day, so to risk emotional injury to your children or spouse by yelling, screaming or shouting during the clean up process isn’t worth it. By pacing yourself and working at the rebuilding process together as a family, you can grow closer on the other side of the storm. Blow up with rage at the people you are closest to and you may risk damaging a relationship that is far more valuable than your roof ever could be.

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About the author- Dwight Bain is dedicated to helping people achieve greater results. He is a Nationally Certified Counselor and Certified Life Coach in practice since 1984 with a primary focus on solving crisis events and managing major change.

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