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Family Matters Blog: Talking Natural Disasters With Kids

By Elaine Sanchez
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Aug. 25, 2011 – I got a call from the school counselor yesterday about my son. An earthquake that had rattled windows and walls on the East Coast the day before also had rattled my 7-year-old.

Yesterday, he was so nervous about an aftershock that his teacher sent him down the hall to the counselor to talk about his fears. My son flooded the counselor with questions, she told me. “What if we get another earthquake? Why do we have to go under our desks? Why would we go outside?”

All valid questions, we agreed.

But the tricky part is finding the right answers. And I figured I’d better do that soon, since another natural disaster, Hurricane Irene, is due to strike the East Coast this weekend. I’ve already caught my son nervously listening to weather reports to see if the storm will hit Maryland.

After some research, I learned the most important thing I can do is create an open environment so my son feels comfortable asking questions. Here are some other tips for talking to kids about natural disasters, courtesy of the American Psychiatric Association’s Healthy Minds, Healthy Lives website:

-- Give children honest answers and information. Children usually know, or eventually will find out, if you're making things up. It may affect their ability to trust you or your reassurances in the future.

-- Use words and concepts children can understand. Gear your explanations to the child's age, language and developmental level.

-- Be prepared to repeat information and explanations several times. Asking the same question over and over may also be a way for a child to ask for reassurance.

-- Acknowledge and validate the child's thoughts, feelings and reactions. Let them know that you think their questions and concerns are important and appropriate.

-- Remember that children tend to personalize situations. For example, they may worry about their own safety and the safety of immediate family members, friends and neighbors.

-- Be reassuring, but don't make unrealistic promises.

-- It's a good opportunity to show children that when something scary happens, there are people to help.

-- Children learn from watching their parents and teachers. They will be very interested in how you respond to events. They also learn from listening to your conversations with other adults.

-- Monitor for physical symptoms including headaches and stomachaches. Many children express anxiety through physical aches and pains. An increase in such symptoms without apparent medical cause may be a sign that a child is feeling anxious or overwhelmed.

-- Consider seeking help from a mental health professional if a child is preoccupied with questions or concerns about fires or other natural disasters, has ongoing sleep disturbances, has intrusive thoughts or worries, or has recurring fears about death, leaving parents or going to school.

You also can stress the importance of being prepared, which may also help to alleviate fears. For our military families, TRICARE medical plan officials have some great information on hurricane preparedness.

Beneficiaries should have an emergency kit on hand, officials advise. Kits should contain food and water, a battery-operated weather radio, flashlights, first-aid supplies and medical necessities.

It’s also important to have a list of health-related information for each family member on hand such as:

-- Copies of each family member’s uniformed services ID card (or sponsor’s name and Social Security number), Medicare card or other health insurance card;

-- Copies of family members’ names, addresses, phone numbers, etc.;

-- A list of primary care managers, other doctors and phone numbers;

-- Emergency contact names and phone numbers;

-- Known prescription medications and doses;

-- A list of allergies; and

-- Style, model and serial numbers for any medical devices.

Also include:

-- Prescription medications;

-- Nonprescription drugs such as pain relievers, anti-diarrhea; medication and antacids;

-- Extra batteries for wheelchairs and hearing aids; and

-- Personal items such as eyeglasses and other special equipment.

For more information and tips on disaster preparedness, visit the Department of Homeland Security’s preparedness website. For updates on military treatment facility closures and other health care information, visit the TRICARE disaster information page.

 

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