Helping Children Cope With Disaster

From “Helping Children Cope With Disaster.” developed by the American Red Cross and other sources, with important links near the bottom of the page.

Disasters may strike quickly and without warning. These events can be frightening for adults, but they are traumatic for children if they don’t know what to do.

During a disaster, your family may have to leave your home and daily routine. Children may become anxious, confused, or frightened. It is important to give children guidance that will help them reduce their fears.

Children and Their Response to Disaster

Children depend on daily routines: They wake up, eat breakfast, go to school, play with friends. When emergencies or disasters interrupt this routine, children may become anxious.

In a disaster, they’ll look to you and other adults for help. How you react to an emergency gives them clues on how to act. If you react with alarm, a child may become more scared. They see our fear as proof that the danger is real. If you seem overcome with a sense of loss, a child may feel their losses more strongly.

Children’s fears also may stem from their imagination, and you should take these feelings seriously. A child who feels afraid is afraid. Your words and actions can provide reassurance. When talking with your child, be sure to present a realistic picture that is both honest and manageable.

Feelings of fear are healthy and natural for adults and children. But as an adult, you need to keep control of the situation. When you’re sure that danger has passed, concentrate on your child’s emotional needs by asking the child what’s uppermost in his or her mind. Having children participate in the family’s recovery activities will help them feel that their life will return to “normal.” Your response during this time may have a lasting impact.

Be aware that after a disaster, children are most afraid that–

The event will happen again.
Someone will be injured or killed.
They will be separated from the family.
They will be left alone.

Advice to Parents:

Prepare for Disaster

You can create a Family Disaster Plan and practice it so that everyone will remember what to do when a disaster does occur. Make sure each child (especially those of cell phone use age) knows how to contact your out-of-state contact person (if you don’t understand this concept see: Disaster planning

Practice evacuating your residence in advance of an emergency, don’t just have a plan on paper or in your mind. Including family pets in the evacuation practices will give the children more confidence that they are prepared and will make it easier to evacuate when the time comes. (You can use a pillowcase to transport a pet in an emergency, but wouldn’t it be easier if you had a real pet container, the pet was used to getting into it and your kids knew how to do it?)

Contact your local emergency management or civil defense office, or your local Red Cross chapter for materials that describe how your family can create a disaster plan. Everyone in the household, including children, should play a part in the family’s response and recovery efforts.

Teach your child how to recognize danger signals. Make sure your child knows what smoke detectors, fire alarms and local community warning systems (horns, sirens) sound like.

Teach kids: when to call 911 (including if someone falls or gets seriously hurt or has trouble breathing); how to call 911 (if you get no dial tone, wait for one; hanging up will further delay your call. Quickly state the emergency, answer all questions and stay on the line until instructed otherwise by emergency personnel) Even very young children can be taught how and when to call (and when to NOT call) for emergency assistance;

how to make long-distance phone calls, and

how to turn on the wind-up or battery powered radio for emergency information (mark the location of the emergency station on the dial).

Regularly update your child’s school with current health status info, emergency contact info and info as to who is authorised to pick them up

Fill out one of these for each family member and keep one copy at home and a copy with you (maybe in the glove compartment?): emergency information form

Kids should also know when and when not to answer the door or phone, and know not to give their name to strangers or tell them that they are home alone. Many safety experts recommend: use a ruse to let a caller think an adult is home, such as “my dad can’t come to the phone right now. Can I take a message?” Teach children to always answer the door, but not to open it for strangers.

Instruct children to talk through the door when strangers are present. Pretend a parent is home “My mom can’t come to the door right now. Come back later.” Don’t open the door for deliveries. Tell delivery people to leave the item outside or drop it off with a neighbor. If you have a cordless phone, have your child bring it to the door, in case someone tries to get inside. Have a through-the-door viewer at kids’ eye level or wheelchair eye level as well as standing adults’.

Help your child memorize important family information. Children should memorize their family name, address and phone number. They should also know where to meet in case of an emergency. Some children may not be old enough to memorize the information. They could carry a small index card that lists emergency information to give to an adult.

After the Disaster: Time for Recovery

Immediately after the disaster, try to reduce your child’s fear and anxiety.

Keep the family together. While you look for housing and assistance, you may want to leave your children with relatives or friends. Instead, keep the family together as much as possible and make children a part of what you are doing to get the family back on its feet. Children get anxious, and they’ll worry that their parents won’t return.

Calmly and firmly explain the situation. As best as you can, tell children what you know about the disaster. Explain what will happen next. For example, say, “Tonight, we will all stay together in the shelter.” Get down to the child’s eye level and talk to him or her.

Encourage children to talk. Let children talk about the disaster and ask questions as much as they want. Encourage children to describe what they’re feeling. Listen to what they say. If possible, include the entire family in the discussion.

Include children in recovery activities. Give children chores that are their responsibility. This will help children feel they are part of the recovery. Having a task will help them understand that everything will be all right.

You can help children cope by understanding what causes their anxieties and fears. Reassure them with firmness and love. Your children will realize that life will eventually return to normal. If a child does not respond to the above suggestions, seek help from a mental health specialist or a member of the clergy.


FEMA for kids

from one the of pages there about rescue dogs:

“Since 1989, FEMA has coordinated an Urban Search and Rescue system. This system has 27 teams, funded by FEMA, which are located in many different states. These teams are specially trained and equipped to find people who are trapped by a structural collapse. The collapse might be caused by a hurricane, earthquake or explosion.

The search task force can be activated in an emergency and can arrive at the disaster within hours. Each team has 62 specialists, including medical personnel, structural engineers – and search specialists. The search specialists include canine specialists – highly trained and certified dogs that know how to safely go into collapsed structures and how to systematically search an area. They know how to locate trapped people and then how to let their trainer know what they have found. These very special dogs work hard and save lives. They are constantly training to keep up their skills. They usually live with their trainers and ride in helicopters, boats and airplanes in order to get to their job fast. They are real Canine Heroes!”


From an Alaska earthquake brochure:

“Earthquakes are traumatic events for all of us, but they are especially frightening for children who may be forced to leave their homes and everything that is familiar to them. A child does not usually understand such events and feels anxious, confused, and frightened. Fear is a normal reaction to any danger which threatens life or well-being. After an earthquake, a child’s fears are those of recurrence, injury, death, or of being alone and separated from the rest of the family. Aftershocks can increase these fears.

Parents sometimes ignore the emotional needs of a child once assured of their physical safety. A child’s persistent fears may generate disruptive behavior, surprising and frustrating a parent who is trying to continue with the daily family routine.


I was especially impressed by:
Factors that Influence the Emotional Impact on Children in Emergencies
and Common Reactions (by age group)


It includes a link to a coping activity:

coloring page for kids


A family (and babysitters, caregivers, nannies, overnight guests) disaster plan is at:

Disaster planning


As a part of preparing for the next earthquake, do a what if? survey of your home, crawl space, attic . .

earthquake home hazards survey


You can find detailed maps (with zoom in capability) of potential road closures, risk of liquefaction and flooding, such as this map of potential Bay Area road closures after a San Andreas fault 7.2 quake,

road closures san andreas fault 7.2 quake: map showing potential road closures in Santa Clara county after a san andreas fault 7.2 quake

at the ABAG link at: Earthquake information sources

Disaster Supplies

Store water for after an earthquake

Babysitter Consent and Contact Form

Fast, easy, cheap earthquake preparedness

hazardous household chemical mixtures

Home Fire Safety Checklist

Earthquake and pets advice (Consider having the vet ‘microchip’ your pets, and more…)


Family Child Care Emergency Plan Workbook
with: Find out what could happen to you, Determine your planning needs, Create a Disaster Plan.
Evacuation, Shelter-in-place, Build a kit of emergency supplies, Put your plan into action,
Talk to parents about your plan, Complete a Home Emergency Diagram, Practice and maintain your plan.


The CDC gave this:

Advice for Parents on Talking to Children About Novel H1N1 Flu (Formerly Swine Flu) Concerns

As a parent you know how hard it can be for children to understand stressful situations, such as the current situation of novel H1N1 flu. Stressful situations often cause children to worry and have many questions as to why it is happening and how it can be fixed. It is important to remember to take care of your health and well-being as well as the health of your children. If you cope with a stressful situation well, your children will also cope better. Your confidence and calm attitude will help your children ease their worries and feel safe and secure.

Here are some helpful tips on what you can do for your children:

Keep activities as consistent and normal as possible even if your normal routine changes (due to daycare or school closures).

Ask your children what they have heard about novel H1N1 flu. Answer questions openly and honestly, at a level they can understand. Be concrete and do not avoid difficult questions.

Allow your children to express their feelings and concerns. Let them know it is okay to be afraid or angry.

Ask questions so you can help them identify and cope with their feelings.

Children always need to feel safe and loved. When they are uncertain about situations and afraid they may need even more affection and attention.

Limit exposure to media and adult conversations about novel H1N1 flu . If your children are watching T.V. try to watch with them or make sure you are available to answer questions about what they have heard.

As appropriate, encourage healthy behaviors: eating well, sleeping well, playing outside.

Use their questions as an opportunity to let them know what they can do to avoid getting novel H1N1 flu.

Focus on what your child can do to avoid getting novel H1N1 flu:

Wash hands frequently with soap and water for 20 seconds (long enough for children to sing the “Happy Birthday” song twice). Be sure to set a good example by doing this yourself.

Cough and sneeze into a tissue. (If a tissue is used, throw the tissue away immediately).
Be sure to set a good example by doing this yourself.

Stay at least six feet away from people who are sick.

Stay home from school if sick, and stay away from sick people until they are better.

In communities that have been affected by novel H1N1 flu, stay away from large gathering places, for example, shopping malls, movie theaters or indoor playgrounds.

a mass of pink flowers from bed in front of community center

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