A general practitioner’s guide to supporting children’s preparedness for a disaster

Emerging Minds, Australia, 2018

These guidelines assist GPs to help families with children prepare for, respond to and recover from natural disasters.

Children of all ages can be profoundly affected by natural disasters such as bushfires, floods, cyclones and severe storms. These events can produce trauma, grief, destruction of children’s sense of safety and security, and loss of their home, school or social networks.

When disasters occur, parents need guidance, information and support to reassure and care for their children as effectively as possible. To help with this support for families, doctors themselves need to be professionally prepared to discuss the issue of disasters with their patient families.

The importance of being prepared for disasters

Talking to parents or parental figures about the importance of being prepared for disasters can increase their ability to cope with disasters, emotionally and practically. If parents know what to expect and do during and after a disaster, this can reduce anxiety and increase their confidence and decision-making ability.

Research shows that a child’s stress and anxiety will also be minimised in an emergency situation when they see that their parents and other adults are coping well.

Children, as well as parents, should be included in discussions about preparation. Some parents might think that talking to their children about potential disasters will scare or traumatise them. But talking to children openly and honestly, and letting them know that the adults are prepared and have a plan, makes them feel safer and more secure, and strengthens their ability to cope with the impacts of a disaster if it occurs.

Doctors’ role in disaster preparedness with families

It is important that you and your practice staff are engaged in your local area’s disaster planning and have undertaken appropriate emergency planning and preparation for your own practice. See the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) suite of resources: Managing emergencies in general practice.

As a family doctor, you are a trusted figure for your patient families. You are in a unique position to understand each family’s medical and psychological needs, their different coping styles, whether there are sick children or family members with a disability or with chronic physical or mental illness.

You can help reduce stress by talking through with each family what they might need to do in a disaster, in the light of what you know to be their particular strengths, needs and vulnerabilities. A simple example is their typical medication or treatments and how to seek help regarding these if a disaster occurs.

Family doctors, familiar with their patients, also know the importance of plain language, simple examples, and clear, easy to follow instructions that allow both children and parents to ask questions and clarify potential misunderstandings. Family doctors might like to talk with children directly with their parents or caregivers present about disaster preparedeness and their role in it.

Psychological and physical preparation are closely linked, and it is important to discuss with children and parents practical and psychological strategies for dealing with potential disasters.

Below are examples of strategies to discuss with your patient families.

Supporting parents and carers to be practically prepared

Encourage the family to sit down together (including all the children) to develop an emergency plan that might include:
  • what you might do if you have to stay in your home
  • where you might go if you can’t stay at home
  • what you will do with your pets
  • what if you are at work and the child is at preschool or childcare
  • keeping an emergency contact list somewhere easy to find
  • Identifying a knowledge bank of where they can get up-to-date reliable information about the disaster and what actions to take
  • compiling a package of important things to take, ahead of time, including medicines or prescriptions, money, credit cards, important contacts and photographs.

Supporting parents and carers to be psychologically prepared

Encourage parents or parental figures to:
  • find out about the risks of the possible disasters they may confront and what they can do
  • understand that feeling worried and stressed is normal
  • understand that stress and fear can be managed by learning how to identify feelings, bodily responses and thoughts, and having coping statements like: ‘I can cope with this, we know what to do’
  • practice breathing exercises to slow down breathing and keep calm.

Supporting parents and carers to prepare and reassure their children

Encourage parents and parental figures to:

  • involve children in the decision making
  • help their children to identify and label their feelings and teach them how to slow their breathing to help manage overwhelming feelings
  • listen to children’s concerns and check in with any misperceptions or ideas and correct them
  • assure children that the preparation the family has done will make things a lot safer
  • allow children to go over all these ideas more than once depending on their age – follow their lead
  • let children speak about a potential disaster and ask questions and check in if they are worried about something happening soon
  • let children know being worried is normal
  • show acceptance of children’s feelings, but let them know that you are not worried about anything happening yourself and your planning will help if it does
  • be aware that children will be worried about themselves, their separation from their parents/ carers and pets
  • reassure children about all the above things and consider having some ready responses for children that engender understanding and support.
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