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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.

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How emergencies affect children emotionally

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:

  • Direct exposure to the disaster, such as witnessing injury, experiencing an injury, or evacuation
  • Serious injury or death of family members, friends, or pets
  • Secondary effects like loss of family resources, social networks, personal property, unemployment, or being placed in temporary housing
  • Experiencing a previous traumatic effect
emotional effect child emergency skynesher / Getty Images
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Talking to your child before an emergency

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.

talking to child KatarzynaBialasiewicz / Getty Images
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Emergency preparedness for children

Here are a few ways you can prepare your child for emergencies:

  • Teach your children when and how to call for help. Explain that when they dial 9-1-1 in an emergency, the police, fire, or ambulance will come as quickly as possible to assist.
  • Keep all emergency numbers near the phone or in a visible location, and explain to your child when to call each number.
  • Have a fire drill, and make sure you establish an emergency escape plan.
  • Show your child where you keep your first aid kit and other emergency supplies.
  • Establish a safe meeting place for the family in the event of an emergency.
emergency preparedness kids fizkes / Getty Images
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Talking to your child during an emergency

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.

Talking to your child during an emergency Imgorthand / Getty Images

Talking to your child after an emergency

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.

Talking to your child after an emergency MStudioImages / Getty Images

Typical reactions in young children

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.

Typical reactions in young children miodrag ignjatovic / Getty Images

Typical reactions in older children, preteens and teens

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.

Typical reactions in older children, preteens and teens laflor / Getty Images

Helping your child with recovery

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.

Helping your child with recovery fizkes / Getty Images

Don’t stop talking

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.

Don't stop talking fizkes / Getty Images

10. Set a good example

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.

a good example GeorgeRudy / Getty Images

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