- Natural disaster preparedness for kids
- Emergency preparedness for kids with special needs
- How to support kids in the aftermath of a natural disaster
After the massive earthquake of 2005 in Pakistan, I served as a volunteer in a temporary shelter for earthquake survivors. Many children there had lost their parents, family members, and friends. They were experiencing an overwhelming amount of stress and sadness. Many of them reported having nightmares, disturbed sleep, lack of appetite, and loss of interest in life. Some were even diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Returning to normal life and dealing with the trauma was a challenge for these children and their families.
Coping with the after-effects of a disaster can be extremely tough both for children and adults. Children often need more support to overcome the sorrow and distress after the traumatic experience.
Statistics on natural disasters
Disasters can be:
- natural (floods, tsunamis, earthquakes)
- man-made (terrorist attacks, wars)
According to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, in 2018 almost 58% of cities worldwide had a high level of exposure to one type of natural disaster (earthquake, flood, volcano eruption, cyclones, droughts, landslides, etc.). Nearly 14% of cities were highly exposed to 2 types of natural disasters, and 2% were exposed to 3 or more types of disasters.
Types of disaster victims
The victims of a disaster can be classified into three types:
- Primary victims: People who live in the affected area and directly face the disaster
- Secondary victims: Community members, rescue workers, residents of the area, and people close associated with victims (family, relatives, and friends)
- Tertiary victims: People who aren’t residents of the affected area but also experience the trauma due to psychological and geographical proximity
The devastating effects of a natural disaster
In addition to the loss of life, natural disasters can cause substantial damage to the infrastructure, environment, economy, and overall activities of a community. These devastating losses exceed the community’s capacity to cope with it in its own resources.
For rescue and rehabilitation purposes, the impact of disaster can be classified into immediate and post-disaster effects.
- Immediate effects: There can be injuries or loss of life, damage to buildings and roads, difficulties in accessing medical help, challenges in getting rescued, and lack of food and clean drinking water.
- Post-disaster effects: After a disaster strikes, its effects on the economy and infrastructure might continue for a longer period of time.
In 2017, Puerto Rico was hit by Hurricane Maria, which caused $100 billion in damages. Even 4 months after the disaster, 32% of the population was living without electricity and 14% without potable water. In New Orleans, unemployment rose to 33% after Hurricane Katrina.
In the aftermath of a disaster, the prevalence of mental health issues such as depression, suicidal thoughts, and PTSD can also increase. A systematic review revealed that the burden of PTSD significantly increases after disasters. According to this study, the prevalence of PTSD ranges from 30% to 40% in direct victims and 10% to 20% in rescue workers.
The collective weight of social, economic, and emotional challenges can make post-disaster recovery more difficult. Support from family, friends, community, and local authorities can help in reducing the burden of mental health issues, as indicated by a study funded by the US Department of Health and Human Services.
Children react differently to disaster
Your children are more vulnerable to stress in the aftermath of a disaster. It’s important to know that every child reacts differently to the disaster. The responses range from mild stress to severe and debilitating psychological and emotional distress.
The following factors can play an important role in determining children’s ability to cope with distress resulting from traumatic experiences:
- Direct experience: Children observing horrific incidents very closely tend to experience longer-lasting and more severe effects.
- Loss of loved ones: Losing someone dear in a disaster can contribute to severe distress and psychological problems (for example, PTSD).
- Age of the child: Children of different ages respond differently to disasters. Younger ones might have a limited understanding and ask many questions. Teens, on the other hand, might withdraw from others or try to hide their feelings.
- Personality traits: Every child has a unique set of personality traits. Those who are more resilient, confident, and communicative might take less time in recovering from stress in a post-disaster scenario.
- Previous traumatic experiences: Children with previous traumatic experiences, especially due to disasters, might be more severely impacted.
Helping children after a natural disaster
Here’s how to support your child and help them cope in the aftermath of a disaster:
1. Answer their questions
Children might not be able to fully understand the post-disaster situation. Asking questions might help them get the information they need.
Listen patiently to their questions and reply in a simple, age-appropriate manner.
2. Encourage them to express their feelings
To release psychological pressure and provide the required emotional support, encourage your children to talk about the loss of a dear one, injuries, or relocation.
Discussing fears, grief, and sorrow will help in supporting each other as a family.
3. Be empathetic
At times, children blame themselves for a crisis or develop a fear of losing family members. Younger children can become over-protective, whiny, clingy, or overly sad. Adolescents might try to hide their depression, withdraw, or develop suicidal thoughts.
In such situations, try to be patient and empathetic. Putting yourself in their shoes will enable you to better understand their feelings and behaviors.
4. Be reassuring
You need to assure the children that their parents, family, and friends are there to aid and support them. Reassurance will help in reducing feelings of helplessness and hopelessness.
5. Encourage peer support
It’s sometimes easier to share feelings with peers than with adults. Developing and strengthening peer support systems can be very helpful for children.
6. Limit access to distressing news
Disturbing news and images relayed on television and social media can add to the children’s distress. Try to limit access to such news.
You can discuss the adverse impact of such content with the children to help them understand how avoiding excessive exposure can facilitate their recovery from trauma.
7. Share inspiring stories of disaster survivors
Reading stories or watching videos of disaster survivors can be a source of inspiration and motivation for children.
8. Be a good role model
Take care of your own mental and physical health. You can only help your children if you recover from the trauma.
Try to model a patient, calm, and optimistic behavior for your children.
9. Develop a daily schedule
A routine gives a feeling of control and safety. Try to bring a structure to daily activities.
It will help children to feel that life is returning to normal.
10. Spend time together
Having family by the side and spending quality time together helps in healing psychological and emotional wounds. Make sure that you spend more time with your children.
11. Seek help from school
School is another important place where your child spends a significant portion of the day. Once children resume school after a disaster, try to collaborate with the teachers to develop a system of adult and peer support in school settings, too.
12. Tap into the power of art, music, and physical activities
Art and music can help children with expressing their emotions, fears, and sorrow. Different forms of art also contribute to relaxing and calming.
Physical activities can also help in reducing stress.
13. Involve them in volunteer work
Try to involve older children and teens in volunteer activities for disaster survivors. It will give them a positive outlook on life.
Working for others in need will help them feel empowered and hopeful.
14. Plan ahead
Planning ahead and getting your children ready for a disaster significantly helps in reducing post-disaster stress.
15. Seek professional help
It’s important to be there for your child and provide all the help you can, but it’s equally important to watch out for sudden behavioral changes. If you feel any such changes are interfering with daily routines and persisting for a longer time, don’t hesitate to seek professional help for your child.
Have you experienced a natural disaster? What strategies did you use to help affected kids cope with the stress? Share in the comments below.