There are many ways to begin caring for children before natural disasters ever come close to occurring. Consider the following questions to help discern what may be best for your situation.
- For infants to one-year-olds, mostly consider how you demonstrate care and calming for yourself and them, amid possibly increasing concern.
- For one to five-year-olds, as children begin to speak they often have very practical questions. Avoid euphemisms and metaphors with this age group, as they are much more concrete thinkers. Focus on basic concepts, as much as possible. Continue to demonstrate care and calming for yourself and them, as well as how they can get soothing or comfort whenever they feel they need it. For example, "If you feel ____ (sad, scared, worried) while we're getting ready for the storm, you can ______ (hug your teddybear, listen to a favorite audiobook, listen to favorite music, play in a designated area)."
- For six to ten-year-olds, continue to be simple and factual in your descriptions, as well as demonstrating care and calming for yourself and them, and making clear how they can seek out soothing or comfort as needed. Additionally, in this age bracket and the next, children have abilities and may experience some relief in being able to help get ready. Consider age appropriate jobs or ways they can help, such as gathering flashlights or other small supplies or getting together a small carry-along bag for themselves.
- For preteens and teens, provide them with facts, listen to them as they share concerns about how the incident may impact them or their plans, and, if appropriate, invite them to participate in helping to get prepared.
Be a reliable, trustworthy adult for a child. Children need reliable, trustworthy adults in their life in order to grow well. These adults are not just parents, but other adults (family, friends, neighbors, community members) who are consistently a part of their lives, care about what they think and feel, and provide them with good.
Tell the truth. If you discern it is important to discuss the possibility of a natural disaster, stick to basic facts about both what the potential dangers are and also how best you all will take care of yourselves. As described above, avoid embellishments and and using euphemisms or metaphors. Be specific and simple.
Be mindful about media. Be mindful of how often news media is around your child(ren), through radio, television, phones, or computers. Try to take media breaks in the immediate aftermath of disasters, and when you are viewing or listening to news be careful to check whether the children around you are occupied in other healthful ways. Be mindful of how absorbed you become in media, and model taking regular breaks to be present with your child(ren). Be thoughtful about how often your attention is divided, even when you are away from media.
Encourage safety. If you do discern a conversation with your child(ren) would be helpful, following their comments and questions, be sure to end by speaking to their safety. For example, you may describe the rarity of disasters or how, even when severe natural events occur, you practice effective safety measures. Whether it is rare for your community or not, you may speak to helpers who are around, including other trustworthy adults in your circles. You may speak to how people are working to make sure this does not happen again or begins to stop happening so much. You may remind them how you are together right now, and how safe you are together right now, how safe your home or evacuation site is. As described above, you might encourage them to locate the things that make them feel better. Even while getting ready, consider finding a cozy spot together where your child(ren) can listen to some gentle music and experience a sense of present peace for some time. Other times, children will have a lot of energy they do not know how to manage or talk about.
One activity that can be helpful is to invite them to “push how they feel”. For younger children, you can brace yourself, with your feet at a wall and arms outstretched in front of you, and have the child interlock fingers with you and push how hard they feel. You might comment by saying something like, “Wow! I can feel you are feeling a lot right now.” Sometimes, at this point of recognition, they may cry and you can remind them again they are safe with you. For older children, you can have them try and push on something immobile like a large tree or a wall. As they do, again, you can comment on how you can see they are feeling a lot. Again, this moment of recognition might help them release some tension through tears, and, again, you can remind them they are safe with you.
When it comes to healing after collective trauma from a natural event, spending time together and sharing your stories of both hurt and healing together can be very helpful for children who have survived tragedy. Even if they don't say anything at first, creating a space where you model for them what can be talked about may help them feel freer to participate the next time. Stories can be shared by talking, and also by doing things together. You may pray together, listen to music, draw or paint together, play, or exercise together. You may sing or play instruments together, or incorporate special foods into your mealtimes to help recall happy memories and to express sorrow. Remember that not everyone heals in the same way. Healing, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Listen to your child for what seems most helpful to her or him. Also, be aware that your children may reenact what has happened in some way in their play or art. This is a common way that children make sense of what has occurred. Invite them to share their creations with you. In addition, some ways that children discover hope is by pretending or artistically creating a solution. This is a way children begin to learn about repairing and restoring what has been lost or broken. Rather than dismissing their inventions, try to embrace them. You might consider saying something like, “How wonderful it would be to have a trampoline/cape/helicopter/raft like that, and be able to get out/away/free.” At times, their feelings may seem out of sync with your own. Be mindful of finding meaningful places for your own healing, beyond healing with children. Finally, consider having children participate in creating responses to tragedy both by incorporating their spontaneous gestures and interest into ordinary experiences, as they come up, and also through intentional community memorializing.
Whatever you do, do not try to pretend away or ignore the truth of what has happened with children. Pretending the truth has not happened, especially when children are in close proximity to a tragic event, causes children to doubt significantly their ability to trust their feelings. This produces deleterious effects on family and social systems and on children’s long-term sense of well-being. Kids experience adverse and extreme results when they grow up sensing truth among adults who refuse to speak of or acknowledge what has occurred. Emotional residue permeates, no matter how hard someone tries to reduce or ignore it. We do our children no favors by avoiding difficult or challenging topics. In effect, we do something worse. We avoid the vital relationship that occurs during pain, a relationship that children and the adults around them need greatly.
The art of caring for children after tragedy, though, is that we also do our children no favors by overwhelming them with traumatic stimulation and keeping them from natural rhythms of repair they feel inclined toward, including taking breaks from media and instead investing in conversation, play, and rest. Kids and teens often find it very meaningful to participate, in age appropriate ways and in ways consistent with their health and personality, with rebuilding efforts. With supervision, this participation can help them process what's happened and discover tangible ways they can repair destruction. The building or relational construction that comes about during the sharing of emotive content as well as physical rebuilding projects creates the substance of what holds caring relationships together. That is, trust, reliability, emotional safety, and forgiveness. What occurs when two or three are gathered amid ordinary and extraordinary times becomes foundations for the next times that we encounter adversity or joy. Being in caring relationships with children during momentous life events is not about having answers. It is about practicing whole-self living within the frameworks of faith, hope, and love.
Practicing presence is hard. This discipline is hard when things are not stressful, let alone amid the chaos of tragedy. Yet, incredible strength and well-being can grow from the remnants after sorrow and destruction. As adults show up and companion with one another, as they stand ready to include children in the important experiences of grief, mourning, and lament that come up in various seasons of life, we go about the work together of rebuilding and sewing seeds for new life.