WEST DES MOINES, IOWA -- Children can be particularly vulnerable to the stressful effects of a disaster. Parents, teachers and caregivers need to be alert to signs.
For children ages 5 or younger, watch for behaviors like crying more frequently, clinging, having nightmares, fear of the dark, of animals, of being alone, a change in appetite, difficulty expressing feelings, or a return to outgrown behaviors, such as bed-wetting or thumb-sucking.
Children, ages 5 to 11, may become irritable, aggressive, compete for attention. They may whine, withdraw, or lose interest in normal activities.
Adolescents, ages 12 to 18, may express rebellious attitudes, experience physical problems or sleep disturbances, become disruptive in the classroom, or begin experimenting with high-risk behaviors, like alcohol or drug use.
Parents and teachers can help reduce stress in children by:
- Giving each child some undivided attention each day, to let him or her know you are there for them, even if just for a few minutes. Share experiences, reaffirm love or concern, and make plans together.
- Encouraging them to communicate with you, and listen to what they say. Involve the entire family or classroom, if possible. Doing disaster planning together can also calm children’s fears. Make a safety plan for the future.
- Understanding that fears after a disaster are very real. Continuously reassure them. Also, recognize their losses: of a home, pets, toys, normal routines, etc.
- Helping them adjust to disruptions and changes by keeping them informed.
- Reminding them often that they are safe. Give hugs, hold them, spend recreational time together, tell stories or just talk together at bedtime.
- Encouraging them to spend time with friends. Peers can offer great support during the recovery process.
- Temporarily lowering your expectations for them, giving them all the time and space they need to recover.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has many tools available to assist you.
Helping Children Cope with Disaster is a free, 12-page publication available through FEMA’s website: www.fema.gov/node/34708.
This downloadable booklet, developed jointly with the American Red Cross, offers parents, teachers, and caregivers an overview of the effects of disasters on children, offering suggestions on how to help them cope after a disaster, as well as how to prepare for future emergencies.
FEMA READY KIDS is a child-friendly, interactive and fun website accessible from FEMA’s website www.fema.gov (click “Kids) or www.ready.gov/kids/index.html, where children can learn to become “Disaster Action Kids.” (It also offers resources for parents and teachers.)
By participating in the numerous educational games and activities offered here, children will soon be able to teach parents, teachers, and friends what to include in a disaster supply kit, how to protect pets during a disaster, and how to respond to the various types of disasters. They might also earn their official “Disaster Action Kid” certificate from FEMA!
FEMA’s mission is to support our citizens and first responders to ensure that as a nation we work together to build, sustain, and improve our capability to prepare for, protect against, respond to, recover from, and mitigate all hazards.