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It’s a disconcerting but unmistakable fact that in an age of climate change-related natural disasters, parents may now find themselves fielding more questions from their children about wildfires, tornadoes, extreme heat, and hurricanes — and facing the prospect of guiding their kids through an emergency.

Given all the stressors families face on a daily basis, discussing and planning for such extreme events often falls by the wayside. “We know by the data that many Americans live in the moment, and there’s so much on family’s plates that it’s hard to remember to think about something in the future,” says Melissa Brymer, the director of terrorism and disaster programs for the UCLA-Duke University National Center for Child Traumatic Stress.

Thinking about the possibility of a natural disaster impacting your family can be overwhelming, so it makes sense that you would want to avoid it. But having a plan in place that keeps your kids’ needs in mind in case an extreme weather event does occur is crucial. Even if you don’t live in a part of the country prone to these events, climate-related disasters are striking everywhere and with greater frequency. Preparedness — logistically, physically, and emotionally — is more important than ever.

Broaching the topic doesn’t need to be distressing, experts say. Rather, it’s possible to talk honestly about the potential of a climate event while still allaying kids’ anxieties and giving them space to discuss their emotions. Despite how stressful it can seem, there are also strategies to help your kids cope if your family is affected by a natural disaster.

Emphasize preparation before a natural disaster

Parents understandably want to protect their children from unpleasant emotions, but try not to minimize the likelihood of a natural disaster, says Caroline Hickman, a climate-aware psychotherapist who focuses on eco-anxiety in children and young people. You don’t want to frighten your child, but you do want them to be prepared in case there is an emergency.

Consider the chance of certain extreme weather events where you live and give them age-appropriate guidance on how your family would stay safe, says American Academy of Pediatrics spokesperson David Schonfeld, the director of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement. Younger kids respond well to storytelling, Hickman says, while older kids might roll their eyes and resist. “But you have to be very firm with them and say, ‘Look, I get it. I’m annoying. You don’t want to talk about it right now, but we are going to talk about it sometime this week,’” she says.

You might say to a younger child, “We’re entering into a season where we could get storms that bring a lot of rain and wind. But we will listen to the weather forecast and go to a place where the rain and wind aren’t as strong if we need to so we can stay safe.” You could also take this opportunity to explain the concept of a go bag — a backpack with essentials in the event you need to evacuate — and ask them what they might pack in it, like a favorite toy. The US Department of Homeland Security offers free extreme weather preparedness resources for children and families.

“I don’t think the goal is just to let them know bad things can happen because that’s just frightening. It isn’t helpful,” Schonfeld says. “It is helpful if you can give them practical information about what they can do to decrease the risks and keep themselves and those they care about safe.”

It can be helpful to ask kids, especially those in grade school, what they know about extreme weather events that occur where you live and how they feel about it, Hickman says. “Chances are, they know as much as you do, if not more,” she says, “and children love teaching their parents things.” This can give you an opportunity to correct them on any misinformation they may have read online or heard from friends.

“Feelings come later when you’re safe.”

Let them know if they ever feel scared, anxious, or have any questions about natural disasters, you’re here for them, says clinical psychologist Regine Galanti, author of Parenting Anxious Kids: Understanding Anxiety in Children by Age and Stage. You’ll want to validate your childrens’ emotions without bringing in your own. Avoid statements like “I’m freaking out about this too,” or “You don’t have to be scared.” Instead try, “It’s gotten too hot in our house so we have to go somewhere else to cool off. I know it’s last minute and I’m not happy about it either. We’ll talk about it more in the car.”

“That’s actually super invalidating when you tell a kid not to feel their feelings,” Galanti says.

Reassure your children that they don’t need to take on the responsibility of keeping the family safe. Remind them that they can relax knowing that you will tell them when it’s time to take action, says Chandra Ghosh Ippen, the associate director of the Child Trauma Research Program at the University of California, San Francisco and author of the Trinka and Sam book series developed to help families with young children cope after natural disasters.

Reassure your kids and give them a task in case of evacuation

If a natural disaster is imminent, explain to your kids any precautions you are currently taking, Schonfeld says. You might say, “There’s a bad storm coming and we’re going to go to the basement for a little while because it’s safer there,” or, “We’re tracking this fire. It might hit our area but because we have a plan, we’ll be safe since we are going to stay at grandma’s if it does.”

You’ll want to model effective emotional coping even if you’re feeling anxious, says Schonfeld. That means sharing that you do have some unpleasant feelings and outlining what you’re doing to cope with them. You could mention, for instance, how the flooding made you nervous, but you remembered all of the steps your family has taken to stay safe and how you feel more prepared.

Avoid watching constant news or media coverage on TV or online, both for your own mental health and for your child’s peace of mind. Choose quality sources of news and only read or watch as much as you need to be informed about what steps to take next. Kids are observant and will pick up on their parents’ anxieties, even if they don’t understand exactly why they are upset, Ghosh Ippen says. If you need to take a moment to break down, do so in private. “Because for us to provide that support for our children,” Ghosh Ippen says, “we need to have a place where we can metabolize.”

In the event of an evacuation, tell your kids you are going to a place where you are absolutely certain you will be safe, Ghosh Ippen says. It can be helpful to give children a task, says Hickman, such as grabbing their go bag and a book or putting their shoes on. You might also mention that your family’s role is to get out of the way so emergency responders can do their jobs. Don’t feel like you must unpack any of your kid’s emotions during the height of an emergency, Hickman says: “Feelings come later when you’re safe.”

Should you shelter in place, explain why you’re doing so, Brymer says. You could say, “The weather is dangerous so you can’t play outside and we need to sit in the basement until the storm passes,” or, “It’s too hot to go to the park today so we’re going to do some arts and crafts inside where it’s cool.” Distracting your kids from the ongoing extreme weather event can help pass the time, especially if you’ve lost power, Schonfeld says. Try singing songs, playing games, building a pillow fort, or reading books.

Avoid the impulse to pretend it never happened

In the aftermath of a natural disaster, it’s important parents don’t pretend it didn’t happen, experts say. You can praise your children for being mature and playing their part, Hickman says. Be truthful with your children if you are unable to return home right away and if there are disruptions to school. You could say, “We need to stay here longer than we thought because our house was damaged in the storm, but you’re safe here. We’re going to continue to stay together as a family.”

Parents should try to facilitate conversations with their kids to discuss how they feel about the disaster. Kids can mask how they’re feeling, Hickman says. “You need to repeatedly ask those questions, because if you just do it once, and think we’re done — big mistake,” Hickman says. “You need to come back to it.” On the surface, children may appear calm, but are struggling to cope with the event. Acknowledge that it might have been scary and ask them how they’re feeling now. Chances are that if your family was directly impacted by the extreme weather event, your kids might know another family that has been, too. “We get a secondary trauma or a vicarious trauma,” Hickman says, which makes having repeated conversations necessary.

“You need to repeatedly ask those questions, because if you just do it once, and think we’re done — big mistake.”

Children are more likely to be upset over the loss of their routines, Hickman says, and parents should acknowledge their child’s emotions. You can lead the conversation by mentioning, “I feel sad we’re dealing with all of this. I’m wondering how you feel about it?”

“You show them how to deal with the emotion,” Hickman says. “You’re not collapsed on the floor in a mess.”

Acknowledge any damage to property, too. Resist the urge to tell your kids that you can buy more toys, Schonfeld says, and instead affirm that you know how important they were to them. Try to reframe a child’s sadness over losing their backyard tree house, for instance, as a sign of how much love they had for it.

If school is canceled, you can facilitate ways for kids to connect with their friends, Brymer says, whether through coordinating a playdate, FaceTiming with the other child’s parents, or making artwork your kid can give to their friends when they see each other again.

Common reactions children might have after a natural disaster include sleep problems, difficulty concentrating, and developmental regression, like bedwetting or thumb-sucking. Give your child grace to self-soothe in the service of healing, Schonfeld says, but encourage them to move forward. “Your goal is to get them back to normal as quickly as you can,” Galanti says. “So what extra supports do I need to give my kid to get them back to their normal?” You should seek out a mental health professional if your child is harming themselves or others or if behavioral problems persist.

Continue to acknowledge how you feel in the aftermath so your kids know it’s okay to discuss their emotions, Brymer says. However, your child could feel confident and secure that you’ve kept them safe and may not be affected by the natural disaster, Ghosh Ippen says.

Regardless of the extreme weather event or the extent of disruption to your family, experts stress the importance of acknowledgment: that the event occurred, that your child might be scared, that they might have lost a routine. Keep the lines of communication open and let kids know that they’re allowed to feel any range of emotions.

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