When disaster strikes -- surviving tragedy with small children

by Julie Snyder

Surviving natural disaster with children

Earthquakes! Fires! Tornados! Hurricanes! Floods! Those can be pretty scary words for adults and children. There are several factors that affect your child's response to disasters.

How calm and reassuring you are, your child's age and how much destruction or death your child sees during and after the event. You can't control or prevent a disaster, but you can minimize the trauma.

Before disaster -- prepare for the worst

Talk about it. In words your child can understand, talk about damage caused by disasters that commonly strike your area. Decide on a number to call and a place where your family will reunite if you're separated.

Put together a basic kit
After a disaster, basic services such as electricity, gas, water, sewage treatment and telephones may be cut off for days or weeks. Plan ahead and make a disaster kit that provides the basics you'll need. Keep it current and store it in a convenient place.

Safeguard memories! Pick out personal items for each member to take if you need to leave your home. For a small child, that might include a favorite toy, blanket or comfort item. Select items that are important to you emotionally. Your list might include pictures, family heirlooms or baby books. Include one or two items that your child'a especially proud of.

When disaster strikes

According to FEMA, when their world collapses, children are most afraid that the disaster will happen again, that someone will be killed or that they'll be separated from family and be left alone.

Remain calm and reassuring. Young children take their cues from you. While you don't want to lie or minimize the danger, you can emphasize the community's efforts to clean up and rebuild. Life will return to normal.

Listen to your child and acknowledge their emotions. Hug and touch your child. Talk about the disaster and answer any questions. Kids need to hear that their reactions are normal and expected.

Limit exposure to the news. Be willing to talk about the disaster on an age-appropriate level or to draw or playact it. Media coverage may be too graphic for toddlers, preschool and school-age children. Watch news coverage with your older children so you can talk about what has happened.

Stick to routines such as meals and bedtime as much as possible. This continued framework gives your child a sense of safety and security.

Encourage action. Involve your child by giving specific chores to help restore family and community life.

Take care of your own needs. Take time to deal with your own reactions and discuss worries. Do things you enjoy. You'll be better equipped to meet your family's needs if you're coping well. If you're anxious and upset, your child is likely to follow your example.

How your child might react to disasters

If your child has survived a disaster or seen one on TV, they may have trouble falling asleep, have nightmares, or start worrying too much.

Babies and toddlers: Your baby can't describe what they see or feel but may react by being irritable, crying more than usual or wanting to be held and cuddled.

Preschoolers: Younger children see changes as permanent. Your child may turn clingy, sleep poorly, refuse food and suddenly be afraid of the dark. You could see a regression in behavior such as potty training, thumb sucking and bed wetting. Your child may include aspects of the disaster in play over and over again.

Elementary school children: School-aged kids display a wide range of emotions -- from guilt and feelings of failure to anger that the event wasn't prevented to fantasies of playing rescuer. Your child may be irritable, aggressive and clingy, have nightmares and want to stay home from school.

Has your family dealt with disaster? What helped your children cope?

Photo courtesy of iStockphoto.