Enduring a hazardous or intense storm, flood, or earthquake can be a traumatic experience, particularly for children and youth, and the destruction of a familiar environment can be long-term and very upsetting.
In the wake of such disasters, children expect the significant adults in their lives to offer guidance on managing their reactions following the threat. Teachers, parents, and other caregivers can assist children and affected youth to deal with the after-effects of a natural disaster by staying strong and calm and reassuring the children that everything will be okay.
After a natural disaster, there are various common reactions; but the reactions of children may vary depending on age and level of development.
Preschool-Regressive behaviors, raised anxiety levels, reduced verbalization.
Elementary-Decreased concentration, avoiding school, increased irritability, aggressiveness, clinginess, somatic complaints, social withdrawal, nightmares.
Middle and High School-Reduced concentration, increased conflicts, eating and sleeping problems, physical complaints, errant behavior.
A number of risk factors can affect the severity of a child’s reactions. These factors can include being exposed to the actual event, the extent of physical destruction, level of support from the parents, personal injury, loss of a family member or friend, being dislocated from their home and/or neighborhood, and pre-existing conditions like a previous traumatic experience or mental illness.
The following are issues relating to specific disasters:
Hurricanes are normally predicted in advance, and this gives communities ample time to get prepared and families time to acquire supplies and evacuate if necessary. However, there is still the likelihood of fear and anxiety in regards to the potential effects of the aggressive winds and rain.
Children might show exaggerated startle reactions, increased stress, and anxiety during a hurricane or immediately after the event. Consequently, children may re-live the stressful experience when faced with subsequent severe weather events.
What differentiates earthquakes from other natural disasters is the aftershocks. Considering that there isn’t a clearly defined endpoint, the disruptions resulting from the continued tremors can increase psychological distress.
What’ more, earthquakes often happen unexpectedly with no warning signs and this limits the ability of individuals to make psychological adjustments that can make it easier to cope with the situation. As a result, this creates a sense of powerlessness. Devastation and aftershocks can lead to children taking longer to truly feel safe again.
Same as with earthquakes, people normally have very little time to prepare for tornadoes. In the aftermath of a tornado, it can be hard to deal with the sights and smells of devastation.
Also, survivor guilt has been shown to be a major coping challenge. For example, there are children who may experience guilt due to the fact that they are lucky to still have a home while their neighboring friend doesn’t.
Amongst all these common disasters, flash floods have proven to be the most dangerous. This is due to the fact that they happen without warning and travel at very high speeds. In most cases, floods don’t lessen overnight, and individuals might need to wait a matter of days or weeks before they can commence cleanup efforts, which results in delayed emotional recovery.
In most cases, there is usually some warning of an approaching wildfire. But the spread and direction of a wildfire can unexpectedly change based on the terrain and wind.
Families and children might be displaced if the need to evacuate arises or if the resulting damage is too much. This displacement can make recovery a struggle.
Recovery needs time. Survivors might need to deal with the impacts of the disaster for months or even years to come. Preparing beforehand and coordinating with supporting agencies will help to promote problem-solving and support family coping.
Adjustments resulting from a disaster experience form a “new normal” for survivors.
Useful natural disaster survival tips for guardians in the aftermath include:
- Recognize and make their feelings normal.
- Reinforce positive coping and solution-finding skills.
- Stay calm and reassuring to your children.
- Motivate children to discuss disaster-related events.
- Put more emphasis on the resilience of children.
- Reinforce children’s friendship and peer support.
- Pay attention to your own needs, and minimize drug and alcohol use to feel better.
The behavior of many, which is often said to be a normalcy bias, makes the rest of us look like nut-jobs and paranoid people. However, assuming that a disaster won’t happen in our living area, in our lifetime, is pure denial and it can be dangerous behavior.