A natural disaster is a stressful time for a person of any age but for children it is even more taxing because they find it even more difficult to come back to their routine life later. And that is frightening for them, says Maneesh Kumar, D.O., a pediatrician at Memorial Hermann Southwest Hospital. When a natural calamity hits, it can be difficult for children to cope with the anxiety. Whether a tornado hits your family or a storm affects an area three states away, knowing what to say and do after a disaster can help with the stress and anxiety in kids.
Explain what has happened
Many of us get overprotective and try to shield our kids from natural disasters if they didn’t affect us. Elementary-age kids and older ones may catch glimpses of the coverage or hear news in bits and pieces from their classmates. Experts suggest instead of keeping things from your child, the best way of treating anxiety in children is to tell them the truth. Find out what your kid already knows and then you can clear up all the mistruths in child-friendly terms. For instance, if there has been an earthquake, you can tell your younger kids how the big rocks deep down below the earth moved and made the earth shake. You can explain the older kids in more detail or give them relevant books to read.
Be ready to answer questions
Once you are done with explaining the situation, expect questions from your kids. What did the firefighters do? Couldn’t they put out the fire in the forest? Was anyone hurt? Try to answer as honestly as possible, but make sure that you keep everything age-appropriate. If a question stumps you, admit that you don’t know the answer. Offer to find out information or work together with your kid to find the answer. But make sure to steer clear of any gory images when searching on the internet for information.
Don’t be worried if your kid does not have any immediate questions to ask. Your kid might be absorbing the information and sorting his or her feelings. Let them know that you will answer all the questions they have in mind.
After experiencing a disaster firsthand or through media, kids tend to worry about their and their family’s security. Restore their sense of security by going through the disaster management plan with them. Show them the emergency kit and the safety precautions that you have taken. Keep calm and tell them that you will do anything and everything possible to protect them from harm. If you are overwhelmed with grief or you are in a panicked state, your kids are going to mirror your emotions and behavior.
It is very difficult to put up a hopeful front when you are standing in a pile of debris that was once your home. But as Deborah Gilboa, M.D., a family physician and author of 'Teach Resilience: Raising Kids Who Can Launch!', says, kids look up to you for reactions, feelings and behaviors for a situation. Talk to them about who wasn’t hurt and what wasn’t lost. This positivity is going to influence their dialogue as well. Instead of grieving over your loss, say things like "Even though I'm sad about the house, the good news is that it can be rebuilt. And what matters most is that our family is safe and we're together."
Returning to the usual routine
Even if you’re staying for few days or weeks in a hotel or at a relative’s place, continue doing things as per your usual routine. For instance, if you used to read at bedtime to your kid, make sure you continue this family ritual. Maintain the same routine for mealtimes and naptimes. This will give your kid a sense of normalcy that will help reduce anxiety.
Look for signs of stress
Kids tend to show signs of anxiety or even depression after a disaster has struck. They may act out, throw temper tantrums or experience change in their sleeping patterns. Things that did not scare them in the past might frighten them after a disaster. For instance, after a hurricane your child may be scared of rain. Anxiety to this extent is normal but if it begins to hinder you kid in his or her daily functions then there is a problem. You might want to seek some professional help.