Helping Young Children Cope with Natural Disasters

Overprotection can come back to haunt children.

Posted Oct 23, 2018

For many summers, my family vacationed in a small island community of rustic, off-the-grid houses with no electricity and, until recently, no cell phone coverage. We shared a sense of caring for each other because we were it, no mayor and no first responders – just us. The grown-ups talked about how they loved this “place apart,” and the inconveniences were a small price to pay. One of the highlights for everyone was the July 4th fire practice. In the 1970s, a third of the homes there were destroyed in a fire that started in someone’s fireplace. The winds were high and the fireboat from the local town couldn’t get there in time. It was all over in 20 minutes. Lesson learned: this could happen to us, we’d better get ready, and fire practice was born. From then on, preschoolers learned how to ring the fire bell, kindergarteners made sure all the dogs were safe, school-aged kids unrolled the fire hoses, teenagers went from house to house to alert each family and grown-ups secured the hoses to the spigots, opened the valves and managed the nozzles. True, the hoses were more than likely aimed at each other than at houses, but the point was clear: if this weren’t practice, but the real deal, we had this. The message to everyone is that there is always a way to help, and everyone helps. Bubble wrap is not an option.

As we now watch wildfires and monster storms roll over our neighbors, parents wonder about how to help their young children cope with natural disasters. Today’s parents feel the added pressure of doing this just the right way so they can protect, bubble wrap, their children from any anxiety or concern about possible harm. But what helps our children is learning how to deal with such adversity, not sealing them off from its existence, which, by the way, is nearly impossible thanks to the newsfeed. Fire practice works, emotionally and actually. The following are some additional suggestions about how to help children cope:

  • Focus carefully not on what you do, but how you are with your children. When they are supported and heard daily, they will trust that they can talk with you about what frightens them so you won’t have to guess what they need if disaster strikes;
  • Blackout TV coverage exposure. Preschoolers think each video segment is yet another event, and the frightening images confuse and disturb. It all feels personal to them;
  • Prepare yourself for repeated questions when there is exposure to scary disaster stuff. Much of what you try to explain, no matter how articulate, such as “This is not happening here,” “It’s not in our neighborhood” or “You will be fine with mommy and daddy, ” will be hard for young children to fathom, and hearing it repeatedly can be reassuring. All questions, feelings, and worries matter;
  • Prepare them to feel that they can handle what happens in their world. Some kids will seem like they could not care less. They still need time to draw a picture, play with their non-digital toys, or play out something they’ve heard or seen somewhere. Playing first responder is common and an effective way of mastering the passive fear of having something scary happen to you. It’s all fire practice and it’s more effective than the overprotection of bubble-wrap parenting.