Mercy Corps pays special attention to helping kids in the wake of disasters. After decades of responding to emergencies, we’ve seen firsthand the serious impact on young survivors and know the importance of protecting children’s emotional wellbeing along with their physical safety.
As Superstorm Sandy continues to batter the northeastern United States, we want every parent to be able to do the same. Kids may feel out of control, confused and afraid of the severe weather and alarming news reports.
We spoke to our youth development expert Matt Streng — who has implemented disaster-response programs for children in countries like Haiti, Japan and most recently, along the Syrian border — about how parents can help their children feel safe during and after this destructive storm.
What kinds of conversations should parents be having with their children during Sandy? Why is this important?
It's easy for parents to forget to take time out from dealing with the storm to talk to their children about what is going on. Parents should find a quiet place away from the news coverage — ideally somewhere the child feels safe, like their bedroom — to find out what may be upsetting and reassure them that as their parent you are doing everything you can to keep the family safe.
Even if you are not dealing with Sandy directly, kids may be scared of a similar storm hitting where you live. Parents should be aware and check in with their kids, even if these current events are far away. Remind children that what is happening in other parts of the country won't necessarily happen to them. It can also be reassuring to review your family emergency plan so they know that you have thought about how to keep them safe.
Depending on the age of the child, it can help to explain the weather and the damage it’s causing, but always follow up with the plans in place to stay safe. Younger children need less detail and more comforting messages, while older children may feel better knowing more details about what is going on and being involved in how they can help.
Share this information in a calm and comforting voice as children are very sensitive to your tone of voice and non-verbal communication. These conversations will help remind children that adults are caring for them and that a plan is in place if something goes seriously wrong.
How can parents explain what is going on without creating more fear?
Don't rely on the news to give your child the information they need. For younger children, too much exposure to the sounds, images and information from news reports may increase their levels of stress by making them think that what is happening on television is going to happen to them and your family. This is why it's important to limit the amount of time your younger children spend watching the news coverage. Instead of dwelling on what could go wrong, focus on the plans in place to stay safe and how you will deal with the duration of the storm — and remind them that emergency services are ready to help families in need.
What is most upsetting to children during events like this? What are their common fears or worries?
Sights and sounds will likely upset children the most. If possible, find a place in the house that isn't next to windows or play music that your child enjoys during the duration of the storm. Children also look to the adults around them for cues as to whether they should be scared, so it's important for adults to try and remain calm.
Children are likely to be worried about losing the things that make them feel safe. This includes their loved ones — especially the people they depend on — their house and their belongings. Children are also likely to be concerned about their friends, other relatives and pets.
You can alleviate these fears by assuring your kids that you will be them until the storm ends and things return to normal. If you’ve had to leave home, make sure they have some familiar belongings nearby at all times. As much as possible, check in with relatives and friends regularly to give reassuring updates to children.
What are signs of stress that parents should be looking for?
Children are likely to be more irritable, clingy, and act out more to get the attention from their parents. This is a normal reaction to the stress and anxiety they may be feeling related to the storm. It's important for parents to be ready for this and respond in a calm and caring way.
Children are also likely to be more fearful of the dark, have a hard time sleeping and experience nightmares or bedwetting. Parents should take extra time during bedtime routines to calm their children down. Try reading a book or telling a story that reassures them that they're safe.
What are some other ways that parents can calm fears and help children feel safe? What activities can help kids through the storm?
Spend time together as a family as much as possible. The more contact children have with their parents and siblings in a relaxed setting, the better. Play games that don't rely on electricity (board games, arts and crafts) and find ways to be physically active indoors so children can release some of the anxious energy they might be feeling.
If you have been evacuated or are stuck indoors for several days, develop a daily routine that is as similar as possible to their normal routine. This may reduce uncertainty and anxiety in children and reassure them that things will return to normal soon.
How can parents help their children process fears that may linger after the storm?
It's common for sights, sounds and smells that remind children of the storm to cause some of these worries to return. It's important to let them know that their worries are a normal reaction to the experience and that even adults have similar reactions.
Encourage your children to talk draw, write or use play to act out a story about their experience during the storm. You can use that as an opportunity to correct any misinformation the child might have about why the storm happened and who was affected so that they can start to make sense of their experience.