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Helping Kids Deal With Disasters

Hurricane Katrina. Hurricane Irma. Hurricane Harvey. The Boxing Day tsunami. The Japan earthquake and tsunami. Wildfires, winter storms, terrorism, on and on and on. Terrible things happen in this world, people suffer, and among the hardest-hit, whether in person or simply by seeing it unfold on television, are children. These disasters can be deeply upsetting to kids, even traumatic. It therefore might be time to sit down and work with our young folk to really look at what’s happening, how to feel about it, and, most of all, how to address the feelings that are stirred up by these events.

“Why do these things happen?”

This is a huge question, and can be very difficult to answer. Young people gravitate toward “why” questions as they struggle to comprehend the deeper, philosophical implications of existence. As adults, we might struggle to explain these concepts in way a young person can understand. Indeed from the point of view of a youngster, most explanations offered by adults can be inadequate, whether based in faith, logic, emotion or all three. What’s needed is to communicate in simple terms, relying on making things relatable -- and on empathy.

A young person will have bad experiences. They will fall off their bikes, trip on a sidewalk, break a limb, have a food allergy, and any number of other troubles. Some of these things are the result of bad choices, and others stem from just plain old bad luck. We accept them as part of life, and chances are your young person will too. We also, hopefully, empathize with people who encounter accidents and troubles in their lives, just as we should those who survive a disaster.

When talking about disasters, it’s really a case of scaling up these understandable life events. They are much bigger and affect more people, but it’s still a case of life throwing things at us whether or not we want them.

It’s important to remember that disasters, like those small things that happen to kids, are not acts of judgement. They are things that happen in life and people who experience them don’t “deserve” the suffering they endure. People aren’t being targeted. It’s not personal, even if it can often feel like it is. In truth, all explanations are inadequate, especially to a young person. There simply is no perfect answer the question of “why.”

The good news is, there are billions of people in the world and very few of them ever experience a disaster. They live their lives and the closest they ever get to a flood or damaging hurricane is on television. Other people have experienced multiple hurricanes, earthquakes, tornadoes and so on, and have grown used to them. In other words, the odds of a young person ever having to face a deadly event are generally quite slim -- though it does pay to be prepared.

“What can I do about it?”

Taking personal action can be very empowering for a young person. For example, researching various scenarios and building a preparedness kit, finding evacuation routes, working with family members to ensure everyone knows what to do in the event of an emergency, identifying places to stay if you have to leave if something happens, even downloading specialized apps that can provide alerts and warnings. As long as you’re careful to ensure this preparation doesn’t ramp up anxiety, this can reassure young people by demonstrating personal agency in the face of something scary.

Above all, teaching young people that we needn’t be powerless in the face of disasters can help ease anxiety and keep things on a practical level.

“What if it happens here?”

One can’t choose where and when a disaster will strike. Odds are anyone reading this will not have to deal with a large calamity, but it still might happen. To begin with, as discussed above, preparation, even simple things like mapping out escape routes or keeping a couple crates of bottled water (and some prepared food) can help enormously. At the same time, teaching the personal actions to take -- designating meeting places, fast-dial phone numbers, and so on.

Most importantly, teach young people to stay calm if something happens. A level head can easily spell the difference between survival and an awful outcome. Dealing with the fear ahead of time can help reduce anxiety overall. Certainly looking at catastrophic images on a screen can be terrifying, and anyone would be forgiven for thinking they would not be able to cope with such a situation.

It’s funny, though … when nightmares become real, ordinary people often find reserves of calm and courage they never knew existed. Best of all is the tendency to pull together in order to get through whatever is happening.

“How can I help?”

There are many ways a young person can help out. The most direct way is to donate money to not-for-profit organizations that are on the ground in disaster areas. Do note that some organizations are better than others when it comes to putting funds to good use, so be sure to research the places you have in mind for donations. Also, some organizations have specific causes, such as feeding homeless pets or supporting children.

To boost donations, your young person can start a local fundraising project that can not only fund a nonprofit but raise awareness as well. There are also volunteer opportunities in areas affected by disasters, as well as your local community. Public safety departments may benefit from help in their own disaster preparedness efforts, while organizations that help victims of all manner of suffering can always use assistance.

Young people can also undertake efforts to raise awareness of disaster preparedness with websites, community gatherings, presentations, videos and so on.

All in all, disasters can indeed be frightening, not to mention humbling. Individuals, however, needn’t live in fear of calamity. Preparedness, understanding and hard work can turn that fear into confidence and faith.