Emergency preparedness for kids: Talking to children about wildfires, natural disasters

Oct. 20, 2020
smoke over fort collins caused by nearby forest fires can cause anxiety and emergency preparedness for kids needs to consider their emotional health as well as physical wellbeing.
Smoke continues to fill the sky over Fort Collins, due to the Cameron Peak Fire, the largest in Colorado’s history. Wildfire and evacuations can lead to increased fear and anxiety. Emergency preparedness for kids should consider emotional health as well as physical wellbeing. Photo: Getty Images.

Natural disasters, such as wildfires and floods, can cause serious physical damage. But it also causes anxiety and fear which means that emergency preparedness for kids needs to include emotional health as well as physical wellbeing.

Christina Gerteis, a licensed counselor with UCHealth Mountain Crest Behavioral Health Center in Fort Collins worked in Louisiana when Hurricane Katrina devastated that area. Gerteis knows people are stressed in Colorado as giant plumes of smoke rise from the Cameron Peak Fire, the largest wildfire in Colorado history billow west of Fort Collins, and other fires that have destroyed homes rage in our state.

With news that the rate of infection and hospitalizations for people positive for COVID-19 soar, Gerteis offers insight and tips on emergency preparedness for kids related to their emotional and behavioral health.

“I absolutely err on the side of talking about it if you live in an area where there is a risk,” she said. “If it’s something your kids are going to see or hear on the news, then it makes sense to talk about it. The more children feel prepared and can talk about these things, the less traumatic stress they might experience later because they are able to cope more effectively and get support from others. However, if your risk is very low, I wouldn’t necessarily have these conversations on an ongoing basis.”

Emergency preparedness for kids

Start with yourself

Just like the flight attendant advises you to put on your own oxygen mask before assisting your child, the same is true in other crises, Gerteis said.

“You really need to take care of yourself first before you can support your kid, as they are learning how to cope by looking at those closest to them,” she said.

This also means not neglecting your mental or physical health.

“A lot of time, as adults, we do engage in avoidance behaviors, such as zoning out in our own ways with screens, technology, social media,” Gerteis said. “It’s good to take a step back from those things and find something like yoga, meditation or taking a walk — and take your kids with you. It will be good for the whole family.”

Let your child take the lead

Gerteis advises parents to let their children take the lead. Don’t let your own fear or anxiety drive these conversations. Your child might not being feeling fear or anxiety, so try to avoid projecting your feelings onto them.

“That’s why it is so important to talk with others in your community to keep your own fears in check,” she said. “Find out what is really going on to determine if your worries are accurate before you move on to discussing those feelings with your kids.”

In both adults and children, these normal crisis reactions tend to last about three to six weeks. If feelings of fear and anxiety continue longer, it may be a sign that the person is struggling and needs professional help.

“There are going to be typical, yet difficult, feelings, and that’s why talking and normalizing those feelings are so important,” she said. ‘But if those feelings are not subsiding within three to six weeks, it may be a good indicator that additional support may be helpful. What we know about PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and traumatic stress is that early intervention is important for keeping symptoms at bay that can often impact our work, school, family, and close relationships in negative ways if left unaddressed.”

Parents need to consider a child's emotional health too when discussing emergency preparedness for kids as these parents are doing here talking to their child on the floor of their home.
Emergency preparedness for kids should include emotional health. When anxiety and fear become part of everyday conversations, parents need to take action and respond. Photo: Getty Images.

Consider the child’s age; keep it accurate

“Younger kids are going to need different support than adolescents, who have stronger abilities with processing and thinking,” Gerteis said. “Age and development are important.”

Younger kids will need more time to rest or play during talks. They’ll need support and encouragement in verbalizing their feelings. And it’s important that the adult validates what they are saying and feeling.

Older children, on the other hand, are more cognitive in processing and exploring their feelings, and if they can do that, Gerteis said, that’s a good time to correct any misconceptions they may have.

“We assume that they are more aware of what is happening, but they also tend to have less background on which to base their feelings,” she said. “Discuss what they know and make sure you’re well informed to correct any distortions they may have about what is going on.”

Working collaboratively with other adults around your children — teachers, coaches, babysitters, neighbors — to make sure that everyone is sharing the same accurate information also is important.

Talk about which ‘normal’ feelings may occur

It’s not abnormal for young kids to act out or show regressive behaviors, such as bed-wetting or tantrums, during crisis situations.

“Everyone is going to have to be more tolerant of potentially regressive behaviors that might not have shown up for a while,” Gerteis said. “This is how they express their internal feelings — which like ocean waves swell and become choppier for a period of time.”

With older children, she said to discuss with them what they, and those around them, may be experiencing. Talk about how it can be stressful, and that it’s not abnormal to find yourself more irritable and anxious.

“Let them know that everyone is going through this and may experience those feelings, and it’s valid and OK,” Gerteis said.

Anticipate the transitions

When there is ample time before a possible evacuation, take that time to prepare for the transition of leaving the home.

  • Look beyond cellphones for communications, as they sometimes fail during crises. Talk about a meeting place or other ways you’ll communicate.
  • Make sure each child has a list of phone numbers on paper that includes immediate family but also their doctor and close supports, such as a coach or spiritual leader.
  • Create an emergency kit that includes important numbers, information on medications and/or an extra supply of those medications, as well as essentials, such as a toothbrush or eyeglasses. And include something comforting, such as a toy or blanket.
  • Get in to see the doctor. It may happen that during an evacuation you’re not able to visit your mental health specialist or physician for necessary health maintenance. As a cautionary measure, call and see if you can get in before you are having to react to a disaster.
  • Put a plan together. Start talking to the community and neighbors to make a plan in case there is an emergency.

An important fundamental amid all the preparation, Gerteis explained, is to make sure that routines with your children remain structured and predictable so that basic needs — such as sleep and healthy meals — continue for them.

“It helps for them to be in the best place possible both physically and emotionally to manage a disaster if it does occur,” she said.

Think about media exposure

Making sure you have a reliable news source for information on the crisis is important, Gerteis said. Use state websites and emergency service social media platforms to get up-to-date and accurate information.

“Television can have the opposite effect and raise anxiety,” she said. “Talk to your older kids about what they are reading online and watching on TV, and limit that exposure. When the anxiety and fear around what is happening starts to become an everyday conversation, it is difficult for kids, and it’s then that you’ll see more younger kids act out and older ones be more vocal about being upset.”

Other resources:

Help Kids Cope by UCLA is a free app that provides family resources for all natural disasters.

Trinka and Sam: The Big Fire – a downloadable coloring book from NCTSN to help young children and their families talk about feelings and worries after experiencing a large-scale fire, like a wildfire.

Child trauma and disasters from The National Child Traumatic Stress Network.

Parent guidelines for helping children impacted by wildfires from the NCTSN.

To find an EMDR trauma specialist therapist: EMDRIA International Association.

To find a Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT) therapist.

About the author

Kati Blocker has always been driven to learn and explore the world around her. And every day, as a writer for UCHealth, Kati meets inspiring people, learns about life-saving technology, and gets to know the amazing people who are saving lives each day. Even better, she gets to share their stories with the world.

As a journalism major at the University of Wyoming, Kati wrote for her college newspaper. She also studied abroad in Swansea, Wales, while simultaneously writing for a Colorado metaphysical newspaper.

After college, Kati was a reporter for the Montrose Daily Press and the Telluride Watch, covering education and health care in rural Colorado, as well as city news and business.

When she's not writing, Kati is creating her own stories with her husband Joel and their two young children.