Chances are it wouldn’t take very much for you to recall a disaster or traumatic event from your childhood. And whether you were directly affected or not, you probably remember where you were or how you found out about the Oklahoma City bombing, the 9/11 attacks and the destruction of Hurricanes Andrew and Katrina. We remember the experiences we have as children because they shape our character and the way we view life. And of these experiences, none are more pervasive then those that challenged us.
But now, as parents, we have the opportunity to help our children cope with and learn from the crises they face. We know talking to children about natural disasters is a great opportunity to teach them about weather and science, but an even greater opportunity exists after the storm has passed. We can find lessons in natural disasters to help children develop character traits that will allow them to grow into responsible and compassionate adults.
When the next disaster strikes, help your children recognize the following character traits in others and in themselves:
Bravery: In the midst of any type of emergency, we can see bravery at work. Whether its first responders like firefighters entering a burning home to save an elderly person or a child who has to temporarily leave the comfort of home behind for a shelter setting, bravery is doing something to help keep yourself and others safe even when it may seem scary.
Empathy: Help children recognize that just as we may feel sad or scared sometimes, others can feel sad or scared – especially after a disaster. When we know that others are feeling sad, we want to treat them like we would want to be treated – kindly and with respect.
Generosity: Even when we may not be directly affected by a disaster, we can do things to help those who have. For example, we can donate clothes or bedding to those who have lost it or write encouraging letters to children affected by the disaster to help cheer them up.
Responsibility: Help your children learn that they can do things to help keep themselves and their friends and family safe. They can be quiet and attentive during drills at school. They can know how to dial 9-1-1 or know important identification information, like parents’ full names and phone numbers. Parents can also help put together a disaster supplies backpack that is ready to go when disaster strikes.
Resilience: Children are naturally resilient, but in times of crisis we can help them develop healthy coping mechanisms that allow them to bounce back more quickly. Remind children that sometimes bad things happen, but they don’t stay that way. After a disaster, many people are working to clean up and help get things back to normal. Help children identify healthy ways to express and cope with their emotions, whether it’s through play with peers, art projects, music or dance. Reassure them that there are adults around them that will always be working to keep them safe and protected.
When using disasters as teaching opportunities, remember that you are the one your child is watching to figure out how to respond. Be attentive to your behavior and model the character traits you want to teach your child. Be sensitive to the needs of those impacted by the disaster and respond calmly and reassuringly. Following a disaster that affects you directly, please remember to take care of yourself and find healthy ways to cope as a parent – whether it’s through exercise, art, or conversations with friends and co-workers. Your child will be glad you did.