Children need to know the meaning of the word “disaster.” They hear and read it constantly on the news. It’s not a movie about zombies or monsters. It’s reality: hurricanes, forest fires — Mother Nature acting violent, destroying lives.

To begin with, suggests the American Academy of Pediatrics, you can explain that a natural disaster happens when nature provides “too much of a good thing” — too much fire, rain, or wind.

Be specific about what can happen: the phone might not work, the lights might go out, there might be no water.

And talk about the helpers: the firemen, policemen, paramedics, and other emergency officials who are there to help. Children should not be afraid of these first responders.

The get-ready kit

It’s a good idea to have some items ready to put into a backpack or container in case you have to leave your house. The AAP suggests:

  • A few favorite books, crayons, and paper.
  • Favorite small toys like dolls or action figures.
  • A board game.
  • A deck of cards.
  • A puzzle.
  • A favorite stuffed animal.
  • A favorite blanket or pillow.
  • A picture of your family and pets.
  • A box with special treasures that will help you feel safe.

Teach children how to call for help, what family contact number to call if they are separated, and when to use emergency phone numbers.

If an emergency takes place, the most important thing a parent can do is stay calm. Children will know if you are afraid, and will look to you for how to act. If you get alarmed and excited, you will scare your children. If you act sad and overcome because of a disaster, the child will feel even worse. But you have to be honest and explain what is happening.

Sometimes, disasters mean a major change in daily routine — even in where you are living. For children, this can be very upsetting. They depend on their daily routines. They will rely on their parents more than usual.

Sometimes children think that they caused the disaster. Reassure them. Their biggest fears are that the event will happen again, that someone will be hurt or killed, that they will be separated from their family, and that they will be left alone. Seriously, aren’t these everyone’s biggest fears? Children get right to the heart of the matter.

But their behaviors will be those of children. They may be particularly upset if they lose a favorite toy. They may undergo a personality change, have nightmares, be afraid to sleep alone, lose trust in adults, and revert to bedwetting and thumb sucking.

During and after the disaster

Help the child as soon as possible after the event, says the AAP. Some children don’t feel upset, so don’t show distress. Others do feel upset, but don’t show it at first. Be on the lookout in case your child needs counseling.

Talk to your child about the event and listen, without judgment. Validate their feelings. Don’t rush them, and don’t pretend that they don’t have the feelings they have.

Below are suggestions from the AAP for families coping with disasters.

  • Keep the family together as much as possible. While you look for housing and assistance, try to keep the family together and make children a part of what you are doing. Otherwise, children could get anxious and 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 them.
  • Encourage children to talk. Let them talk about the disaster and ask questions as much as they want. Encourage children to describe what they’re feeling. Help them learn to use words that express their feelings, such as happy, sad, angry, mad and scared. Just be sure the words fit their feelings — not yours.
  • Listen to what they say. If possible, include the entire family in the discussion. Reassure them that the disaster was not their fault in any way. Assure fearful children that you will be there to take care of them. Children should not be expected to be brave or tough, or to “not cry.”
  • Include children in recovery activities. Give children chores that are their responsibility. This will help children feel they are part of the recovery. Having tasks helps children feel empowered and gives them a way to feel in control and useful.
  • Go back as soon as possible to former routines. Maintain a regular schedule for children.
  • Let them have some control, such as choosing what outfit to wear or what meal to have for dinner.
  • Allow special privileges, such as leaving the light on when they sleep for a period of time after the disaster.
  • Find ways to emphasize to the children that you love them.

Restrict access to television coverage of disasters. If families are in a shelter, hotel, or relative’s home, disaster-related coverage can be traumatic. However, you can encourage children to draw pictures of how they feel about their experience. Families can write a story together.

A note about pets: Shelters don’t take pets. You need to have a plan in case you have to evacuate. So call your local humane society to find out if there is an animal shelter; call local veterinarians and find out who could shelter your pet if there is an emergency. You can also search for “pet-friendly” motels outside your area. Children will not be happy if they have to leave their beloved pets behind.