A guide for health and social service workers: Supporting children’s disaster preparedness

Emerging Minds, Australia, 2018

These guidelines assist practitioners to help families with infants and children to 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, the 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 help them reassure and care for their children as effectively as possible. To help with this support for families, practitioners need to be professionally prepared to discuss the issue of disasters with their client families.

The importance of being prepared for disasters

Engaging parents in the course of your work about the importance of being prepared for disasters can increase their emotional and practical ability to manage disasters and traumatic events. If parents know what to expect during and after a disaster, this can increase their confidence and ability to support children.

Children’s stress and anxiety is minimised in an emergency situation when they see that their parents and other adults are managing well. Some parents might think that talking to their children about potential disasters will just 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 effects of a disaster if it occurs.

The practitioner role in disaster preparedness with families

It is important that you and your colleagues are engaged in your local area’s disaster planning and have undertaken appropriate emergency planning and preparation for your own practice. If you have a plan for what your service will do in the event of a disaster, you will be better prepared to provide support your clients during a disaster or traumatic event.

As a practitioner, you are a trusted figure for the children and families who you work with. You are in a unique position to understand each family’s particular mental health, physical or economic needs that may affect their ability to recover from a disaster or traumatic event. You can help reduce stress by talking to each family about what they need to do in a disaster, in the light of what you know about their particular strengths, needs and vulnerabilities.
Practitioners 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. Practitioners might talk with children directly with their parents/carers present about disaster preparedness 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.

Some example strategies to discuss with your client families

Being 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 to do if you (the parent) are at work and your child is at preschool or child care
  • 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.

Being 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.”
  • learn breathing exercises to slow down breathing and keep calm.

Preparing and reassuring 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.
Up Next: Some example strategies to discuss with your client families

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