It’s a reality that natural disasters are more common and destructive than ever, and have the potential to strike at any time. But did you know that children are one of the most vulnerable populations amidst a disaster, and also critical to a community’s recovery?
As a teacher of disaster planning and after the birth of my daughter, I was driven to ask the same questions many parents I know had as well. 1. How and when do you start to prepare a child for a natural disaster? And 2. How do you talk about it in an age appropriate manner where the conversation leaves your child feeling secure and empowered instead of more scared?
What I learned, was comforting. I found that with the more knowledge children have and practice they gain, the more prepared and resilient they can become. As parents we witness this every day. Our little ones evolve from taking tentative first steps to confidently running sprints. Like any new skill, it doesn’t happen overnight. Family preparedness needs to be practiced and developed over time.
Armed with this new knowledge, I consulted LadyBugOut advisor Dr. Susan Ko, Child Psychologist and former Co-Managing Director of the National Center for Child Trauma Stress. She shared some universal tips on how to approach the subject of disasters with children:
- Stay calm, collected, and confident. Whatever you say, your children will remember the feeling in addition to the words. Reframe “fear” to “calm.”
- Plan for a series of small conversations. Share knowledge clearly and often.
- Follow your child’s lead. Encourage them to ask questions.
- Answer questions directly. Keep it factual.
- “I don’t know” is an opportunity to look it up together.
Since I live in a major earthquake zone (Los Angeles), I first practiced with my daughter and was inspired by the outcome. The conversation I had with her went like this, “Em! Did you know that we live in a place where the earth shakes sometimes?” I paused to give her the chance to lead the conversation. She replied, “oh-ok, but when?” My response was simple and truthful, “Honey no one knows exactly when, but if you figure it out we can retire!” The conversation ended there and she didn’t mention it again for weeks. Over time, she began asking follow-up questions about what she should do, what an earthquake might sound like and so on. To address these questions, we practiced “Drop, Cover, Hold” in various places, and even listened to a small segment of the NPR Podcast, The Big One. When the recent Ridgecrest earthquake occurred and she heard adults talking about it, she chimed in proud to share her knowledge on what to do to keep her friends safe.
My four-year old may not be the one to save our family during a quake, but through the conversations we’ve had and the practice drills we’ve done, she has built confidence and feels prepared. Through preparing for an earthquake, she is developing her resilience. What I always tell parents is to start with your own knowledge and expertise regarding their child and be authentic. You don’t need to know it all.
Regardless of the disaster type, it’s important that you:
- Educate yourself about the risks, resources, needs to keep your family safe in the event of a natural disaster.
- Focus a plan for reunification. Discuss where to meet to keep everyone safe.
- Have emergency supplies including food, water, medical, and safety items.
- Communicate this plan to your community – both locally in your neighborhood and to a dedicated out of town contact.
For each disaster type, here are the most important tips for families with small children below.
- Everyone needs to know how to “Drop, Cover and Hold on”
- If an earthquake occurs at night discuss the importance of staying in bed with your children. Advise them to roll on to their stomachs and cover their head and neck and wait for you to come get them
- If inside and you don’t have a large object to seek cover under, drop where you are, avoiding windows, lighting fixtures or furniture that could fall
- If outside find an open space and stay there—move away from buildings, streetlights, or trees
- Remember the #1 injury in an earthquake is cut feet, so tie shoes to your bed or keep sneakers underneath to protect your feet
- If you see a wildfire, call 911. You may be the first person to have spotted it. Ensure your kids know this number as well
- If emergency officials tell you to evacuate, evacuate!
- Be aware that smoke and ash can travel for miles so to limit exposure. Stay indoors, avoid strenuous play and exercise, keep doors and windows shut and set air conditioners to recirculate air.
- N95 masks help to keep harmful particles out of the air you breathe, but they should only be worn if they have a proper fit.
- Turn on outside lights and leave all the lights on inside the house. This will help it be seen in heavy smoke.
- If you are in a building:
- Go to a safe room such as a basement, cellar, or lowest building level, be sure to bring items of comfort for your children such as lovies or stuffed animals
- If there is no basement, go to an inside room like a closet or hallway.
- Stay away from corners, windows, doors, and outside walls and do not open windows.
- If you are outside with no shelter nearby:
- Get into a vehicle and buckle your seatbelt. Put your head down below the windows and cover your head with your hands and a blanket, coat, or other cushion.
- If there is no car or shelter, try to find a ditch or area lower than the ground and lie down. You are safer in a low, flat location than under a bridge or highway overpass
- Stay away from windows and glass doors. They could break and hurt you.
- Don’t go outside when the rain or winds stop. This is the eye of the storm, or a short “rest,” and it will start again.
- If need be, stay inside a closet or a room without windows. You can also lie on the floor under a table or sturdy object.
We know that preparing for disasters is daunting. On top of everything else to do and worry about as a parent, sometimes, the last thing you want to do is prepare. As I have worked with hundreds of families just this past year, what I always tell parents is that preparedness is a state of mind, not a one-time task. Do one thing differently tomorrow. Over time, preparedness will be a part of your family culture and each supply, task, drill, and conversation can bring your family safer, together.