Every day, the 24-hour news cycle floods our feeds with reports of natural disasters, hate crimes, terrorist attacks, active shooters, and suffering all across the globe. Though the odds are slim that your family will be directly involved in an emergency, it's always better to be prepared just in case the unthinkable happens. Not only does preparedness save lives, but it also gives both parents and children a sense of security and control during these turbulent times.
While many kids’ reactions to disasters are short term, there are several factors that put some at risk for longer-term psychological distress. These factors might include:
Before you talk to your child about an emergency, set aside a quiet time when everyone is calm and unrushed. Explain that an emergency is something that can hurt people or cause damage. Explain that while emergencies can be frightening, when people are prepared, they’re better able to take care of themselves and one another.
Reassure your child that no matter what happens, you’re prepared to make sure they’re safe. Make sure you have safety plans in place to give your children a sense of control and increase their confidence.
Here are a few ways you can prepare your child for emergencies:
The best way to support your child during an emergency is to be their sanctuary. When children see their parents and caregivers react with calmness and confidence, they’ll feel reassured. It’s also important to limit their exposure to distressing and sensationalized media coverage during this time.
Talk with your children in an age-appropriate way about what is happening. Answer their questions, no matter how upsetting, keeping your responses simple and straight to the point.
Your child will feel upset and experience overwhelming emotions after an emergency, no matter what age they are. Some might react instantly, while others have a delayed response after a period of numbness.
Continue to minimize their exposure to upsetting media coverage of the emergency. If that’s not possible, encourage them to ask questions and help them make sense of what they’ve seen on the news or heard from their peers. While downplaying their fears and dismissing their concerns isn’t helpful, make sure you correct any misinterpretations. Above all, they need your reassurance, guidance, and perspective right now.
If your child was directly involved in the emergency, encourage them to keep talking and asking questions. If you have concerns about how they are coping, speak to their doctor, or a licensed therapist.
After a traumatic event, infants and toddlers might become cranky and cry more often than usual. They might need to be cuddled or held more, and won't want their parents or caregivers out of their sight. Preschool and early elementary school children might regress to behaviors they’ve already outgrown, such as tantrums, bedwetting, sleep problems, nightmares, or separation anxiety. They might not have the language yet to ask questions about what happened or express their fears, which can be distressing.
Older children may become focused on specific details of the event, either wanting to talk about it all the time or not wanting to talk about it at all. They might have difficulty concentrating and may experience overwhelming feelings of sadness, anger, and fear that the event might happen again.
Preteens and teens sometimes respond to traumatic events by acting out. Others might become more withdrawn. The overwhelming emotions they’re experiencing might cause them to lash out more than usual.
Stick to routines, or create new ones. Knowing what to expect from day to day helps children of all ages feel safe and secure. Spend extra time doing things with your children that they enjoy, such as telling stories, playing games, or reading books. Laughter decreases tension and makes everyone feel closer.
Kids have less experience with bouncing back after a traumatic event and lack the context to grasp what happened fully and the reasoning behind it. Give them plenty of opportunities to express themselves and process their feelings regularly. Have them draw pictures and tell stories about their memories of the event, then talk about them afterward. Keep reminding them that while what happened was upsetting, everyone is safe now.
When it comes to emergency situations, your reactions and coping strategies matter. Set a good example for your kids by managing your stress in healthy ways. Avoid unhealthy coping mechanisms, eat healthily, exercise regularly, and keep good sleep habits. The more rested and relaxed you are, the better able you are to respond to unexpected events. Your children will be looking to you to make the right decisions for your family, so show them that you're capable of keeping things under control.
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