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Expert Advice

How to Care for Yourself and Your Kids When Natural Disasters Are in the News

People who survive wildfires, hurricanes, earthquakes, and other natural disasters can find their lives forever changed. Their homes and workplaces may be destroyed. Their jobs may be gone. They may be injured or traumatized—or their children may be. They may have lost people they care about.

Even if you aren’t directly affected by a natural disaster, you can still feel unsettled and anxious in its aftermath. The images of destruction, injury, and death we see on T.V. and in our social media channels can take a toll on us. Understanding how you and your family might react—and how you can respond—can help you feel more prepared.

How adults may react to news of natural disasters

It’s perfectly normal to worry about your safety, as well as that of your family and friends. Sadness, anger, and grief are all common emotions. You may also have trouble sleeping or concentrating. Some people can’t stop thinking about the event. There is some evidence that people who aren’t directly impacted by a natural disaster can still show signs of trauma in response to media images and can also feel a collective sense of loss.1 Older adults who have memory or other issues related to aging can have an especially tough time coping.

What you can do:

1. Take a break from the news. Turn off the TV and put down your phone. Get outside. Grab coffee with a friend. Do something that you enjoy to give your mind and heart a chance to rest.

2. Have a plan. Being prepared for a disaster can help lower anxiety and fear—as well as help keep your family and your home safe if the unimaginable happens.2 Think about what you would need for you, family members, and pets to survive for at least seventy-two hours without power, additional food or water, or transportation. Find out if your kids’ school or your workplace has a disaster plan—and if not, advocate for creating one. See the resources section below for more information on how to make a plan.

3. Care for yourself. Eat well, exercise, and try to get sleep. Talk about your feelings—either with a trusted friend or family member, or a doctor or therapist. Get back to your normal routine and spend time with loved ones. If it helps, participate in memorials or raise funds for disaster relief efforts.

How children may react to news of natural disasters

Natural disasters are scary for adults—and even more so for children. It’s normal for kids to feel frightened, confused, or worried that they or their family members will be hurt. Kids may not fully understand why these events happen and can fill in gaps in knowledge with their imaginations. For example, they may somehow think that they or someone else caused the event. Kids can also pick up on adults’ reactions, so if you’re tense or worried, they might be, too.

Signs that indicate a child might need help

Most children will recover with support from teachers, parents, or other trusted adults. Parents or caregivers should watch for significant changes in behavior, aggression, sleep patterns, eating habits, and concentration levels. For example, younger children might be clingy or regress to behaviors they’ve outgrown, like wetting the bed or sucking their thumb. Older kids might seem angry or withdrawn.3 Pay attention to any physical complaints and call your pediatrician to rule out medical problems. If children are putting others or themselves at risk, they may need additional help from mental health professionals.

How to talk to children about natural disasters

If you have kids in your life, it’s important to talk to them about natural disasters in the news and how they’re feeling. But first, you’ll need to address your own fears and emotions. Children are like sponges—they’ll suck up your strong reactions of anxiety or distress.

When you’re ready to talk, these tips from Save the Children can help:

1. Be honest, but don’t give too much detail. Disasters do kill and hurt people, but remind kids that you’ll do all you can to keep them safe. Avoid graphic descriptions that will upset or confuse them. Instead...

2. Ask what they already know and listen to their questions. It’s okay to say “I don’t know” and offer to find answers.

3. Reassure. Remind your kids that it’s okay to be scared, and it’s okay to talk about feelings. Remind them that their safety will be your first priority. Give them extra attention and lots of hugs.

4. Prepare together at home. According to Save the Children, “Research shows that disaster preparedness education helps children better respond to and cope with disasters because they feel equipped with safety skills.” It’s okay to make it fun; let a child identify a safe spot to shelter in place, have a scavenger hunt to make an emergency pack, or run timed family emergency drills. Save the Children created a Prep Step song and dance to teach kids simple steps to get them ready for emergencies.

5. Teach kids the plan for outside of the home (school, daycare, etc.). According to Save the Children, “Even young kids can begin to memorize their parents’ full names and phone numbers, and elementary aged kids can understand local weather risks and protective actions. But they can’t do it unless the adults in their lives make preparedness education a priority.” Talk about emergency plans at school or other places where they spend time. Let them know you are aware of the plan and advocate for stronger plans if they can be improved.

6. Limit graphic images and media. Adults need to be informed, but images and reports can be too confusing and scary for children.

7. Learn about the science of disasters together. It’s important for children to understand that natural disasters are no one’s fault. They are caused by the earth’s movement or weather. Talk about types of natural disasters, how they happen, how scientists track and study them, and how community alert systems help us stay safe.

8. Recognize the helpers. Mr. Rogers’s advice was spot-on. He said, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother's words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers—so many caring people in this world.” When you watch the news, notice the police, emergency personnel, volunteers, and others who are helping—and point them out to children, too.

9. Encourage compassion. Disasters are a chance to teach children that we all need to help each other. Volunteer, write thank-you letters to first responders, or raise money for relief efforts.

Resources for making a disaster plan

Save the Children, Disaster Checklist for Parents and Families
CDC, Natural Disasters and Severe Weather webpage
Ready.gov, Build a Kit guide to assembling emergency supplies

Endnotes

  1. L. Smith, D. Bernal, B. Schwartz, et al., “Coping with Vicarious Trauma in the Aftermath of a Natural Disaster,” Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development 42, no. 1 (2014): 2–12.
  2. https://www.fema.gov/pdf/areyouready/areyouready_full.pdf
  3. https://www.fema.gov/coping-disaster