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Helping children cope with natural disasters

How can parents prepare their children for natural disasters?

Experts in childhood behavior say parents should be aware of their own state of mind before soothing their children. Many children in the midst of natural catastrophes are stirred by trauma, but a little preparation can go a long way.

Disasters are unpredictable so families should perfect a plan well in advance, says Edward Plimpton, an Amherst-based psychologist who specializes in anxious children.

Don’t wait until you know a blizzard is coming. Start a conversation with your child now. Involve them in building an emergency kit.

Early planning and simple, straightforward conversation can ease tension. Take a moment to check your own state of mind before talking to your children. “Anxiety is contagious,” says Plimpton.

Learn relaxing breathing techniques to calm your own anxiety and then teach them to your child. Take a few deep breaths. Get in a balanced place and realize that children can sense when adults are upset.

It is not uncommon for a parent to say to children, “don’t be afraid,” when in fact the parent is very afraid, said Kenneth Talan, a child psychiatrist in Hampshire County for over 30 years. He is the author of “Help Your Child or Teen Get Back on Track: What Parents and Professionals can do for Childhood Emotional and Behavioral Problems.”

He advises, “Before talking to your children about natural disasters, prepare yourself first.”

Tailor the conversation to your child’s age. When talking to a 7-year-old, emphasize the fact that there are grownups around taking responsibility for the situation. Give them concrete reassurance.

“The child’s job is to be near an adult,” says Talan. “If a child is 14 then the parent could ask the child to help out.” Teenagers can help put up window shutters, help you assemble a disaster kit, and drive to the store to buy supplies.

Be clear and honest. Tell your child that it is normal to feel afraid and that in an emergency it is natural to feel amped up.

Plimpton suggests that parents explain that this is happening for a survival purpose. Turn the conversation into a brief science lesson. “Let them know that when we are in danger our biological system of the flight or fight response kicks in,” says Plimpton “It’s there to help mobilize us.”

Educate them about the natural world. Tell them how and why natural disasters happen.

The tornado in western Massachusetts in 2011 was atypical, but some children think “Oh my god is that going to happen again?”

Make distinctions between disasters and normal events. Parents can tell their children, “Tornados are really scary, but around here they are very unusual,” Plimpton suggests. Acknowledge their feelings, but always remind them of the facts.

“Try to put things into child-friendly speak,” Plimpton recommends. “If you want to calm a child down, it’s useful to have different ways to talk about calm breathing.”

Parents can say “it’s like we are blowing out birthday candles” or “it’s like we are breathing in the smell of the soup and then we are blowing out and cooling the soup.”

Also, do not underestimate the power of material comfort. “If going to a temporary shelter, soothe the child by taking along one of their treasured objects,” Plimpton recommends. Let the child take along their favorite stuffed animal, action figure or a box of Pokémon cards. This object will provide a reminder of home and feelings of familiarity.

If you do not have to leave your home and you are lucky enough to have electricity, watch calming DVDs. Nature programs like "Blue Planet" can help relax the family, says Plimpton. Family board games may do the trick.

If your home loses electricity, storytelling or campfire songs are great entertainment. Invent a new game, be creative and bond with your loved ones.

When natural disasters strike, some children sit in hazy states silently clinging to stuffed toys while others weep with the sound of thunder. The presence of fear, the whipping of the wind and the breaking of glass all leave an impression on any person in its vicinity, but what you do not want your children to do is to watch TV endlessly. Media exposure to natural disaster does not strengthen a child’s capacity to handle them.

“In general, the media tends to supersize events,” says Plimpton. “Television is owned by the worry monster. If you watch disasters endlessly replay themselves on TV, you will potentially traumatize yourself and create sticky pictures in your head about the disaster that will be very hard to get rid of.”

The fear is often more destructive than the actual disaster.

Handle fear in small doses. Make time to take a break. “Often times in our culture if we have to get through something we force our way through,” says Talan. “That is a way to get through it, but overall I don’t think it is the healthiest way.”

Develop a strong connection with your child so that they feel safe during disasters, have a plan and effectively communicate that plan.

“Children have great resilience, take care of their basic needs and their system will digest the event.” says Talan. “Children’s capacity to process threatening events, even events that injury them, is quite remarkable and our job as parents is to provide safe and supportive conditions for that natural process to happen.”

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