How to take care of children in the event of a natural disaster

On New Year’s Day, Reina Pomeroy’s 7-year-old son saw what was left of his home in Louisville, Colorado after a wildfire ripped through the area. (Photo courtesy of the Pomeroy family)

The day that Reina Pomeroy unwittingly became an expert on how natural disasters affect children started off pleasantly enough.

On that sunny December morning, she and her husband, David, had taken their sons, ages 7 and 2, for a hike near Boulder, Colorado. High winds blew them back to their home in Louisville, which they had moved into about five months earlier.

At around 11:30 a.m., as they tried to settle their youngest for a nap, Reina noticed the sun had changed from yellow-white to “fire sky orange,” a hue she knew from growing up in California. Her husband quickly confirmed that a smoky fire had broken out in the parched grasslands to the west.

In less than 45 minutes, the Pomeroys were thinking of evacuating. Reina said to their eldest son, “If we can never come back here, what would you want?” He grabbed his teddy bear and blanket.

Outside, the wind stirred the garbage cans like tumbleweeds. The smoke got so thick she couldn’t see across the street. At 1:35 p.m., the Pomeroys fled in their SUV.

That night, when the car they left in their garage alerted them that the temperature had reached 200 degrees, they knew their house was burning. As the adults struggled with the news, their 7-year-old watched. “My son saw me lose him,” Reina said. “There wasn’t like a strategy, ‘This is how we talk to our kids about it.’ It was more, ‘This is how I react.'”

The Marshall Fire of December 30, which killed two people and destroyed nearly 1,100 homes, was a personal calamity for Pomeroy and his family. But her experience of having to guide her children through a disaster is not unique.

Every year around the world, an estimated 175 million children are affected by natural disasters. And as the United States enters the peak hour of hurricanes, wildfires and more that some scientists call “danger season,” experts say it’s important to understand the needs of children.

Children are especially vulnerable to the long-term consequences of disasters, said Betty Lai, an associate professor in the department of counseling, developmental psychology and education at Boston College. “Because young people are still growing up and gaining experience about how to cope with the world, experiencing a disaster at a young age may have a greater impact on young people than on adults,” said Lai, author of several studies on how disasters affect children.

Disruptions to daily life can have an exaggerated effect on children, said Dr. Justin Zachariah, a pediatric cardiologist and associate professor at Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Heart Center in Houston.

“While everyone can be creatures of habit, kids specifically rely on structure as a foundation for the rest of their lives,” said Zachariah, who helped write a American Heart Association 2017 Scientific Statement on the adversity of childhood and adolescence. A disaster can disrupt everything children need to thrive – home, family, schools, neighborhoods and relationships with friends.

A child’s perception of danger can be a significant predictor of long-term disaster response. Lai said children can suffer from stress even if their life is never directly in danger, if they have to change schools or if a parent loses their job.

Children’s responses vary widely, Zachariah said. Some may seem insensitive, while post-traumatic stress can cause others to shut down or become hyper-reactive.

Both mental and physical health can suffer. Studies have linked childhood adversity to the long-term risk of heart attacks, strokes, and other problems. Traumatized children may have sleep problems or nightmares, Lai said. They may have difficulty in school because of missed classes or develop difficulty concentrating. Symptoms can last for years.

However, a disaster need not scar a child for life. Children “are often much more resilient than we realize,” Zachariah said.

Studies show that most children can bounce back. But not all do. Adults should therefore remain alert to difficulties, Lai said.

They should also set the emotional tone. “Children’s response to a disaster is highly dependent on their parents’ response to that disaster,” Zachariah said.

The younger the children, the more they will turn to a parent to find out how worried they should be, he said. “If you have a young child who is going through a natural disaster, but that young child’s basic needs are being met and the parent is not exercising or showing any signs of distress, the child may not understand that ‘Something is happening.”

Parents have to walk a tightrope when faced with frightening realities. Zachariah recommends “as much honesty as is appropriate” in the parent-child relationship. An older child can handle more transparency than a young one. Hiding hard facts, however, “will usually be an exercise in futility, as children will find out,” he said.

Lai accepted. “We know kids are very perceptive,” she said. “So even if you don’t say it, they can understand that something big is going on. And it can get even scarier for kids not to discuss something.”

After a disaster, getting children back into their routines is crucial, she said. “The routines are very comforting and provide structure for the children, as well as their families.”

Children also need opportunities to express themselves, Zachariah said. “From a developmental and neurobiological perspective, they may not be able to bring those things that are in their subconscious into their consciousness.” But a parent can ask a child to draw a picture or write a story about how they feel. These could reveal irrational thoughts that wouldn’t occur to an adult – such as the fear that a disaster is punishment for something the child has done.

Teachers can provide guidance on when it may be time to seek professional help such as counseling, Lai said.

She and Zachariah said parents can help children by taking care of themselves. This ensures parents “have the reserve to face unexpected challenges and guide children through these changes,” Zachariah said.

Parents don’t have to hide their own feelings, Lai said. “Modeling how you seek support yourself and connecting with them about your grief and shared feelings can be very helpful.”

In Colorado, Reina has spent her year juggling such issues.

She co-founded Marshall Together, a support network for Marshall Fire survivors. Now, as construction begins on their new home, she and her husband talk about the events in an age-appropriate way with the boys. (She asked that their names not be used to protect their privacy.)

His youngest, now 3 years old, talks about “the fire station”. He’ll miss an item, then remember, “Oh, I had this in the fire station, but it burned down.”

He never saw the ruins of their house. But on New Year’s Day, her older brother, now 8, stood in the space where his bedroom was on the second floor. There the avid reader found copies of beloved books such as “Charlotte’s Web” in the ashes.

Her reactions were complex, her mother said. Her school “did a wonderful job” of offering guidance. But sometimes, when she lights the fire again, he says to her: “Can’t we talk about it?”

Other times, out of nowhere, he’ll ask a random question that reflects his anxiety, like wanting to know which part of the house caught fire first. “And I’ll tell him what I know,” Reina said.

She copes with her own difficult times in part by walking away when she needs to. “I’m going to go meditate, sort of pull myself together for 10 minutes, then come right back.”

His advice to others who have gone through a disaster with children is to understand that “it’s a long game”.

Every tragedy is different, Reina said. “But I think overall grief is not linear and takes a long time to work through. So give yourself a lot of compassion. I think it’s normal that we don’t. not in a day.”

Guidance on how to help children prepare for and cope with disasters is available from the Centers for Disaster Control and Preventionthe Addiction and Mental Health Services Administration and the American Association of School Counselors.

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