View of a hurricane from high altitude

Meeting Children’s Needs During a Natural Disaster

Under threat of a hurricane or other potential disaster, it’s important to prepare children for what may come without overly alarming them. Tell them a disaster is something that could hurt people or cause damage; explain that nature sometimes provides “too much of a good thing,” i.e., fire, rain or wind; and talk about things that could happen during a storm, like lights going out or phones not working.

Let children know there are many people who can help them during a disaster, so that they will not be afraid of firefighters, police officers, paramedics or other emergency personnel/first responders. And, perhaps most importantly, teach children:

  • How to call for help
  • When to use emergency numbers
  • To call a designated family member if they are separated/lost

The most important role a parent can play in an emergency situation is to stay calm. Children of all ages easily pick up on their parents’ fears and anxieties. In a disaster, they will look to their parents for help and for clues on how to behave. If you react with panic or alarm, a child may become more scared; if you seem overcome with a sense of loss, a child may feel their own losses more strongly. However, experts agree that you should be honest with your children and explain what’s going on. Just be sure to base the amount of information and level of detail on what’s appropriate for their age level.

“Children grow very accustomed to their daily routine, so when that routine is disrupted, they may become anxious,” says James R. Haj, president and CEO of The Children’s Trust. “When children become anxious their imaginations can run wild, so when a child says they’re afraid, take their feelings seriously and be as reassuring as possible.”

After a disaster, children may be upset over the loss of a favorite toy, blanket, teddy bear or other items that adults might consider insignificant. They are most afraid that:

  • The hurricane will happen again
  • Someone will be killed or injured
  • They will be separated from their family
  • They will be left alone

Parents should remember that the psychological effects of a natural disaster don’t go away once the emergency has passed. Children can suffer from nightmares or other problems, such as bedwetting and thumb sucking, for up to two years after a disaster. It is also common for some children to undergo a personality change – from being quiet, obedient and caring to loud, noisy and aggressive, or from outgoing to shy and afraid. Some may lose trust in adults because the adults in their life were unable to control the disaster.

Children are best able to cope with a traumatic event if parents, teachers and other adults support and help them with their emotions. Parents should consult their pediatrician for further guidance and be on the lookout for signs that their kids need counseling. Be vigilant: Even if children do not show a change in behavior, they may still need your help.

The above recommendations come from the American Academy of Pediatrics.

For additional information regarding counseling children or other family members during a natural disaster or other crisis, call 211.

The Children’s Trust is a dedicated source of revenue established by voter referendum to improve the lives of children and families in Miami-Dade County by making strategic investments in their futures.

Media Contact: 
Natalia Zea
Chief Public Policy & Community Engagement Officer, The Children’s Trust