Disasters are frightening enough for adults, but for children they can be traumatic . Long after safety has been restored, and life goes back to normal, children may continue to suffer emotionally.
A disaster can affect their everyday feelings of safety, after maybe seeing their usually in-charge parents or guardians afraid. Children may also be dealing with loss of pets, toys, or even homes. They may also have seen obviously injured people or even dead bodies.
Even more vulnerable are children with pre-existing emotional and behavioral problems, who may get worse if support systems fail. Even the most responsible parents may have to re-prioritize activities, medications may be unavailable, and destabilise routines.
According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, several factors affect a child’s response to a disaster:
The way children see and understand their parents’ responses is very important. Children are aware of their parents’ worries most of the time, but they can be very sensitive during a crisis. Parents should talk about their worries to their children, and talk about their abilities to cope with the disaster. Pretending there is no danger will not end a child’s concerns.
A child’s reaction also depends on how much destruction and/or death he or she sees during and after the disaster. If a friend or family member has been killed or seriously injured, or if the child’s school or home has been severely damaged, there is a greater chance that the child will experience difficulties.
A child’s age affects how the child will respond to the disaster. For example, six-year-olds may show their worries by refusing to attend school, whereas teens may minimize their concerns, but argue more with parents and show a decline in school performance.
Here in Trinidad and Tobago, we know that preparing children for disasters can significantly increase their ability to cope. It gives a greater a sense of security, control, risk awareness, and survival potential. Disasters aren’t really polite guests, they often don’t let you know they’re coming over, so you must prepare your children long before you hear of a specific threat.
We consulted the Office of Disaster Preparedness & Management in T&T and asked about how they incorporate children into their activities. The ODPM reports that it works closely with schools, groups, and youth-serving organisations to raise awareness of disaster risk, and build resiliency among young people.
As we’ve already mentioned above, talking with children about the potential for disasters can help them be less afraid should one strike. It is important to explain things in words the child can understand, and in a way that is not overwhelming. Age-appropriate preparedness materials and trainings from the ODPM educate youth with engaging activities and easy action steps. The ODPM believes that promoting youth preparedness education today is one of the most effective ways to build more resilient communities tomorrow.
The organisation can only do so much on their own, so they focus on building partnerships to enhance, increase, and implement youth preparedness learning programs; connecting young people with their families, communities, first responders, and other youth; and increasing school preparedness. They collaborate on a youth preparedness movement through initiatives like the Communities Organized and Ready for Emergency Programme (C.O.R.E), safer schools programme, and the Let’s Get Ready Campaign. By engaging with government and non-government organizations the ODPM will be able to provide comprehensive disaster education to children throughout a growing network of organisations.
You can join in by associating your organisation with ODPM’s community preparedness programmes. Your program can join a growing network of the nation’s most prominent organisations dedicated to serving and strengthening their communities. The shared challenge is to engage and empower youth and their families in becoming current and future generations of prepared citizens.