Here we are in the midst of hurricane season, again! Is your family prepared, and are you helping your children learn how to cope? How easy it is for children to get lost in the commotion of emergency preparedness and recovery. Yet, children have special needs, should have their own disaster kits, and can often be helpful in preparation and recovery efforts.
Most children cannot understand the magnitude of a storm or its lasting affects and will take their cue from the adults around them. It’s important to prepare your family for dangerous weather so that you can stay safe. Events that are traumatic for adults are more so for children if they don t know what to do. Children look to adults for help. How we react tells them how real the danger is. If we are calm and prepared, they will be reassured.
Children have varying understanding of storm preparation and recovery, and they may have questions and concerns. Listen, and answer their questions carefully, stopping when they seem satisfied. Be truthful and speak at a child’s level. If you don’t know the answer, say so. Make sure children are supervised and know who is in charge. We cannot prevent storms, but we can let our children know we love them, will be with them, and are doing everything possible to keep them safe.
It helps if a family can plan together for hurricane season. One family I know meets together to discuss what they will do. Their four children ages three to fifteen, listen, learn, and give input. They have found that their children are learning about hurricanes in school and other programs and have much to offer. Their friend’s teen saved her horses during Hurricane Charley because she had learned to leave them outside from a guest speaker at her 4-H club meeting. The barn collapsed during the storm, and her horses would have been injured had they been left indoors. This made an impression on the adults, and they are more open to what their children have to say.
Last hurricane season, my neighbor made lists and assign tasks to family members, checking it off with a sticker or star when each job was done. The younger children enjoyed that visible recognition, and were proud of themselves. I watched as the Mom expressed appreciation to her older daughter, hugging her and thanking her for how she helped her younger sister.
When assigning tasks, they are careful to be reasonable. Depending on their ages and abilities, children help put things away, fold laundry, clear the yard, gather items for evacuation, move outdoor furniture inside, and keep younger children occupied. Their teen can pack for evacuation, make a home inventory, prepare for pet evacuation, move heavier furniture and equipment, help install shutters; take pictures, and put important papers in plastic protectors.
Your family may need to evacuate or move to one part of your home. Help children choose what to bring, and pack ahead of time. Include favorites (blanket, stuffed animal), treasures (a special gift or found object), and necessary tools (flashlight, personal radio). The ideal carrying case is waterproof and can be carried or wheeled easily by the child. It can be a backpack or canvass bag. Load the car in advance to see if everything fits. This is a great time to discuss priorities. Be sure to include a photo ID and basic identifying information.
Make age appropriate disaster kits. For infants and toddlers, breast milk is the safest food during an emergency. Nursing mothers have successfully fed their children through wars and natural disasters. Nursing has a calming affect on both the mother and child, and nursing can begin up to six months after birth. If using powdered formula, be sure to have at least 72 hours worth of safe water on hand, and at least that amount of liquid formula if appropriate. Add diapers, wipes, baby washcloth and towel, a change of clothing, soft toys and board books.
Preschoolers can have their own flashlight, blanket, change of clothes, hat, favorite toy and book. For school age children add a journal and pencil, cards or a board game. For ‘tweens and teens, add sunscreen and insect repellant if you know they will handle these responsibly. Children with special needs may have medication, an inhaler, or other special equipment. Everyone will need water and healthy snacks.
Children should know their names, their parents’ names, address, and phone number. They should know where to meet in case of emergency and the name of a contact relative outside the immediate area. Young children can carry this information on a lariat or have it written on clothing or in their disaster kit. Children need to know how to use 911 and be familiar with disaster helpers, such as firemen, police, FEMA, Red Cross volunteers. Determine a buddy system within the family.
Children thrive on routines and limits. Family routines are certain to be upset in an emergency, and should be re-established as quickly as possible. This includes getting up, dressing, eating breakfast, going to school, dinner, homework, playtime, and chores. Limits include the amount and content of TV and computer time allowed, bedtime, healthy foods versus junk foods and drinks, where a child can and cannot play. For example, downed power lines and standing water MUST be off limits!
Some parents have found that it helps to take time to explain what is happening before and after a storm. Families can learn about the science of storms and the meaning of weather related vocabulary. Ask your librarian or bookseller for helpful books to read together. 4-H has developed related curriculum to use with groups, and will be giving presentations at area libraries and park day camps.
Other families allow children to do art projects to express feelings, and to act out scenes using props. The children drew picture of the storm, before during, or after, then they did a skit on the storm. Play is a great way for children to process and gain understanding and a sense of control.
After a storm, parents can help grieve losses talking about what the storm has taken away. Did your favorite tree come down? If so, you might talk about how you’ll miss it’s shade, and how you’ll choose a new tree to plant. Also talk about good things, such as how everyone helped each other. Ask, what can we do? Depending where the storm hit, children can assist with clean-up or help others by sending donations and caring letters. Taking action provides a sense of control.
Every family needs a first aid kit, and to discuss safety after a storm. Teach children to be careful approaching animals, even your own, as they may be disoriented and can bite. Be sure children are supervised, wear closed-toed shoes, work gloves, and eye protection when helping Keep a buddy system, know where your children are and give them a time when they are due back. Reassure them that the family is what is most important, and that material things can be replaced in time. As soon as possible, replace a favorite or treasured item that may have been lost.
After a storm or even after storm preparation, some children may be especially fearful during every day thunder and lightening storms. They may have nightmares and not want to be away from their parents. Professional help is available if lasting fears and nightmares occur, and can make all the difference.
Project H.O.P.E. was developed by FEMA to help children handle the emotional aftermath of storms. Using animal puppet characters and an elaborate, attractive stage, trained staff portray a scene after a storm. They then talk with the audience about what happened, working through any emotional responses the children have. Project H.O.P.E. collaborates with other youth serving agencies, and can be reached at 863-228-6473 to schedule a performance.
Those who have been hit hard by storms know that the affects can be lasting, and that there is no return to “normal.” Still, as life goes forward, good things will happen, and children need that reassurance as well.
This information and much more can be accessed through websites for FEMA (find the link for FEMA for Kids), Red Cross, EDEN (Extension Disaster Education Network), Collier County University of Florida Extension, Collier County Health Department - WIC (Women Infants and Children) Program) Disaster Homepage: Children, Stress, and Natural Disasters, University of Illinois Cooperative Extension Service.