5 Ways to Help Kids After a Disaster

Wild fires, tornados, floods; There are ways to protect children from trauma

Posted May 19, 2016

With the Global Humanitarian Conference scheduled to begin Monday in Istanbul, and wildfires continuing out of control just outside Fort McMurray Alberta, we need to think about what we can do to cushion the impact of natural and man-made crises on children. Elhadj As Sy, secretary-general of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies reminds us we need to be more proactive. Attendees at the Istanbul conference may accomplish little more than vague promises, but the need for concrete strategies to help the most vulnerable among us (children) are urgently needed. Even insurance companies understand this. As the number of sheer size of disasters increases, it’s time we started thinking about the resilience of our families, schools, and communities and how they can buffer the impact of potentially traumatizing events in children’s lives.

Let’s me give an example of appropriate action. Escorted by a colleague of mine from Kanto Gakuin University in Yokohama Japan, Dr. Keji Akiyama, I was recently in the tsunami affected area of northern Japan seeing first hand how their government and NGOs had coped with the very large number of orphaned children. Because the tsunami struck mid-day, children were at school and most schools had evacuation protocols in place. In many instances, the children’s parents were not so fortunate. Many of them lived and worked on the flood plain. The 11-meter wave destroyed entire towns, washing out to sea tens of thousands of people. Children returned home to empty or destroyed houses, without an adult to look after them. The remarkable thing about the Japanese response was how quickly children were resettled with relatives and how efficiently families were provided with good quality temporary housing, each unit about 40 sq meters (approx. 400 sq feet) in size. Just as importantly, whenever possible children were kept in their same communities and indeed, returned to their same schools with their same peers.

While all this was impressive, it was what the NGOs did that really caught my attention. In Japan, a child’s normal routine is to attend school during the day and then tutoring programs in the evenings. This, it seems, not only becomes a child’s social life, it also offers them the hope of getting to college and a secure future that will make their parents proud. Thinking about what children needed, NGOs established a large number of after school programs, all crammed full of children who seemed quite content to get away from their caregivers and those small temporary houses and return to a normal routine. When I asked Dr. Akiyama if the NGOs were also providing recreational programs and other interventions common for kids post-disaster in North America, he looked at me and knitted his eyebrows.

“Why Mike,” he said, “would we want our children wasting time playing?”

While that was, I thought, a very Japanese thing to say, it did remind me that post-disaster children need to feel their lives are returning to normal. In Japan that meant a return to school and build hope for the future on the foundation of education.

Sadly, such patterns are too often ignored. Many children remained out of school for months and months following Hurricane Katrina. And Syrian refugees living in camps in Lebanon were all but denied access to education or opportunities to integrate. We lose the potential of an entire generation when we misunderstand a child’s need for normal routine and structure. In fact, when children are given back routines that make sense to them, there is plenty of evidence they avoid the debilitating effects of potentially traumatizing events.

So what, then, will children need after the horrifying fires in Fort McMurray in Northern Alberta? Colleagues of mine like Dr. Robin Cox, Director of the ResilienceByDesign research lab at Royal Roads University is focused on enhancing the adaptive capacity of communities. In other words, her team has been figuring out what communities need to do before and after a crisis to recover quickly. Among the first things they’ve discovered is that a community’s disaster resilience is not shared equally by everyone. The most vulnerable are more likely to be impacted the hardest when bad things happen. To address this problem we need to take a bottom up participatory approach to identifying what people need. Even children can tell cue us to what they need during a crisis.

I like to think that whether by design or luck, those who responded to the needs of Japanese orphans understood that kids wanted to return to school and needed the supports necessary to continue their path to college. Yes, they also needed counseling, but a child’s world is far less complicated than we might think. Here, then, are five big things that children will require immediately after a crisis.

First, children need to maintain connections with those who love them. Continuity of relationships has been known to protect children as far back as the London Blitz during the Second World War. Parents might think it best to place their children with relatives for a time while the adults figure things out but our instinct to protect children from chaos may actually do them more harm than good. Children’s worlds are buffered by their caregivers. As long as there are still meals and hugs and bedtime stories, most children do better remaining with their parents than being sent to some place we adults perceive as more secure. Guilt and worry are likely to haunt a child when they are removed from their parents.

Which brings me to the second thing children need after a disaster. Children need their lives to become as routine as possible. When they do, much of the potential trauma can be avoided, or at least displaced until later when their lives are calmer and there is time to grieve. I’ve seen this same pattern among AIDS orphans in Botswana and homeless youth running from abusive homes in Canada. Give a child routine, structure and reasonable consequences, and they survive better than we might expect.

If the first two lessons learned are keep kids connected and get kids back into routine, the third is to maintain a child’s sense of place. Place, of course, is usually physical, but it can also be both psychological and social. One’s home is wherever one is loved and feels a sense of belonging. Psychological space comes from feeling continuity in one’s identity and culture. Thinking about disaster recovery like this, one sees that a child needs fewer psychologists and more peers, elders and mentors if resettlement is go smoothly. I’ve been particularly impressed by communities in Alberta that accepted the displaced residents of Fort McMurray. In one featured story, a 14-year old boy who had been playing football for his high school was immediately offered a place on a team at the school he enrolled in days after the family fled their home. He may have lost his team, but at least he didn’t lose that part of his identity which made him most proud. For other children, it’s been remaining with their parents that has been the most protective factor, or going to live with extended family that has turned a disaster into an opportunity to connect with those who love them. In no way should such simple solutions make us overlook the incredible stress displacement caused or the loss of one’s home. But doing whatever we can to create for a child continuity in their sense of where they belong and who they are in their community is going to help them adapt to a horrible situation.

Fourth, children need to know that whatever happened wasn’t their fault. They are in no way to blame for their misfortune. This can be tough for kids, especially if they had to leave behind pets (thousands of animals were abandoned as families ran for their lives when flames engulfed the suburbs of Fort McMurray). Children need to be clear as well that feeling sad, angry and even regressing in their behavior (e.g., bedwetting) are all perfectly normal reactions when you receive a terrible shock.

Fifth, children need to participate. They need to feel control over their situation. They shouldn’t be burdened with decisions that are beyond their capacity, but they do need to be offered choice. During a disaster, a child can suddenly feel completely disempowered. They have been forced to accept that others will tell them what to do. On the one hand, a predictable environment with rules makes a child feel safe, and with safety comes resilience. But a child also needs to feel some sense of power as well. There’s nothing wrong with giving a child real responsibility in a shelter. Including them in chores. Insisting they make some decisions for themselves and are given tasks that give them a feeling of accomplishment. The worse thing we can do is turn children into victims, or worse, turn perfectly competent youngsters into infants who we expect nothing of. Children will be more traumatized if they are handled delicately than if someone asks them to step up and help with the tasks at hand (as long as those tasks are age appropriate). If that means walking the dog, or keeping their belongings organized, choosing what they’ll wear their first day back at school, or helping with the shopping, these are all tasks even younger children can help decide.

This list is not exhaustive, but it does echo what researchers have been saying makes families and communities resilient. Recovery doesn’t mean therapy. It means designing a child’s environment to give them back as normal a life as their caregivers can manage.