Children are affected by natural disasters, but their level of understanding varies with their age and language ability. As parents and caregivers, we want to support them and encourage them to express their feelings and thoughts about the event. Here is an ages and stages guide to help you channel their anxiety into positive actions.
Babies: Babies don’t understand anything about the situation, but they can pick up on the anxiety you are feeling. They need attention and response to their needs from a caring adult. Continue to meet your needs and theirs.
Toddlers: Toddlers have very limited verbal ability. Often, a child’s first memory is around their family’s reaction to a significant event, not the event itself. Memories begin around age three when language abilities start to kick in. As with babies, meet their needs for food, sleep, cuddles and play on a regular schedule. Toddlers and preschoolers thrive on predictability, routines and order. The regularity of life builds their security and makes them feel safe.
Preschoolers: Preschoolers have a good grasp of language and can ask many questions. Their imaginations have kicked into high gear but they have limited understanding of how the world works. Answer all of their questions in simple, matter-of-fact language, but don’t get graphic in your descriptions. They can draw pictures of their understanding of the disaster or their feelings with plain paper and markers. They can dictate a story so you can write it. They might even act out their thoughts and feelings by playing with dolls and toys. Give positive reassurances that they are safe. At this age, children may want to put their anxieties and fears into action and they may not. They could help you collect items of need for those affected by disasters. Gift cards, toiletries, canned food, flashlights, socks and underwear, and bottled water are all very helpful for victims of any disaster. Keep preschoolers away from images and video that may frighten them. They don’t have the understanding yet to put it into context.
School-agers: Young children are black and white thinkers, but are energetic and generous. They want to put their concerns into action. They could set up a refreshment stand and give the donations. They could accompany you to help clean up. Be sure to get them a mask, gloves and rubber boots. Supervise what they pick up by working side by side with them. They could bake and cook with your assistance for those displaced out of their homes, clean-up volunteers, and first responders. They could help you set up the guest room for visitors. Supervise the media they watch. Some children cope easier with processing scary images than other children. Be sure to show them images of the volunteer spirit, and community help, to boost their optimism and faith in fellow humans. Follow all directions from authorities. Your children are watching you obey the rules, and will remember it for the future.
Teenagers: Teens are abstract thinkers and can carry many discussions and conversations about the logistics and effect of disasters. They have probably already seen the images on social media before you have, but welcome the chance to talk about it with someone they love and trust. In times of emergency, people naturally want to stay close to their reality and loved ones. Welcome their closeness. Let them cry and acknowledge their fears. Give them extra hugs as you would do to all your family in times like this. Welcome their efforts to help and assist you in volunteering. They often come up with great ideas to fundraise and help out, so encourage their volunteerism and enthusiasm.
Support your children and your community and believe in the indomitable spirit of human love, caring and compassion.
Judy Arnall, Certified Family Life Educator, Copyright www.professionalparenting.ca Permission granted to reprint