This isn’t a post about prepping, but more about how to deal with the aftermath of a disaster (or multiple in my case) with young children (ie under 5 who don’t understand as much). I’m not even going to go into what equipment we did or didn’t have, but more about the behaviours and the emotional coping that I went through with my family after the events, specifically what my wife and I did with our children and what we saw happen to other children we know. (hopefully it’s ok in Family Prep, if not sorry, and just go ahead and move it somewhere better)
So a bit of background to put everything into context. I live in Christchurch, New Zealand, with my wife and two children (son currently 2 ½ and daughter 14 months). In September, 2010, there was a 7.1 earthquake here that caused a lot of damage around the city and to a lot of homes. There followed months of smaller aftershocks before in February, 2011, there was another large earthquake that destroyed a lot of the central city and killed 184 people. Lots more smaller aftershocks, followed by another 6+ magnitude in June. Repeat the aftershocks and then another 6+ in December 2011. So far from September 2010 to now there have been over 10,000 aftershocks.
I’ll just throw a disclaimer in here as well. I’m not a psychologist of any type or had any training in it. All I’m going to talk about is what I have done and seen. I’ll add in my views and opinions, but these are just from experience, not from training. Hopefully I’m doing ok and not screwing up my kids for long term damage.
So, what not to do. During an earthquake the natural reaction is to grab the kids and get to cover. There is absolutely no way to override this reaction, so don’t even bother trying. But for god’s sake try not to scream and turn into a blubbering mess in front of them. The children that I have seen that have coped the worst over the last 18 months are the ones where the parents panic and breakdown following the event. One example of this are some friends who live about 2 blocks away. In the June earthquake the husband was out of town on business and they called me to help at the house to do some emergency repairs. I got to their house about 2 hours after the quake and found grandmother and mother holding the two kids (2 ½ and 6 months) and everyone was crying and hysterical. The 6 month old had no idea what was going on, just that mum wasn’t happy so she wasn’t happy. The old kid was much the same and months later still automatically has a meltdown after every aftershock, no matter how big or small. If the kids think that the shaking is a scary thing that makes their mummy and daddy cry, they’ll cry too. The kids would have been safe in the yard playing with grandma while mum sorted out the house. They could have tagged in and out for kid duty while the other cried. Instead it was a nasty cycle of we cry, they cry. They are crying so we are going to cry etc.
The next thing not to do is to break their routines. The natural instinct is to keep the kids close in case another one hits. This is especially the case if the house is damaged or people have been injured. But as soon as it is safe, get back into a normal routine. If they have their own bed, get them back to it as soon as it is safe. If they go to day-care/pre-school etc then get them back into it as soon as you can. My nieces father became ultra paranoid after each earthquake and refused to let the girls sleep in their own room. It went so far as everyone in the same bed. Eventually he got over his paranoid, overprotective streak and the parents tried to get the girls back into their own room and beds. They failed miserably. For months they were fighting a battle to get the girls to sleep in their own bed. Eventually they would go to sleep in their own room, but overnight would sneak back into sleep with mummy and daddy. It took a long time and a lot of fighting but everyone is back in their own beds for the night now.
So what should you do? This is easier said than done. I think that it is really important to give them somewhere safe to be. Obviously this covers the obvious like things not falling on them, but I’m meaning more that they feel safe, and that we as parents feel that they are safe. For both of our kids this was their bed. This had a few benefits over the course of all the events. For the adults, it meant that we knew exactly where the kids were, and we knew that they were safe from getting hurt. We could put our daughter in her cot with books and toys and she would be safe and contained. Our son was a bit harder, but he managed to understand to stay on the bed and play. This meant that we could clean up the house, and if another aftershock hit they would be ok. It also meant that they kept their normal routines and sleep areas. This worked really well until December when a 6+ hit. An hour before that a large shake hit so we were in cleanup mode and my son was on his bed when the 6 hit. He was safe, but some things fell over in his room (toys off shelves etc) and scared him. So now his safe place became a bad place for him. Not too bad in the scheme of things, but it meant that for two weeks he wouldn’t go to sleep without mummy or daddy with him. Initially he wouldn’t let us leave the room until he was asleep, but bit by bit we increased the time we were out of the room and two weeks later back to normal. For now anyway.
We also got my son back to day care as soon as we could. He loves being there with his friends etc and is part of his normal routine. Obviously things got shut down for safety checks, so during this time there were several days where our house was overrun with toddlers. I was at work thankfully. While not the routine environment, the social aspect was good for the kids, and also the adults I have to add.
All this is long winded, so sorry for the long read. I guess I can sum it up as two key learning points. The first is to keep as calm as you can during and immediately after the event. This can be hard when your chimney has collapsed into your house and crushed toys (my house), but if you start screaming and running around in a panic, the kids will pick up on this pretty fast and any small event similar will be a trigger for them. Let it all out once they are asleep and can’t see mum and dad upset.
The second is to get things back to normal as much and as soon as possible. Kids thrive on routine and often don’t cope well with changes. Familiar people, environments and things (blankets, toys etc) all help to create this. After the February quake my wife and kids , along with wife mother all bugged out to extended family that are out of town. Familiar toys and two people they know and love meant that for them it was more of a holiday and an adventure than something to be scared of.
All of this is from my earthquake perspective, but I assume that the same will apply to hurricanes, tornadoes or any other event. I’d image that if the parents run and scream in a tornado, any wind event after that will trigger the reaction. Everyone, young or old, will be scared and traumatised, but as parents our job is to minimise it for our children.