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Children and Emergency Preparedness
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In the last section, we discussed three focus areas for assessing children exposed to disaster or terrorism. These four focus areas are, the child's behavior and emotion, the severity of the stressors, and coping.
In this section, we will discuss helping parents handle two kinds of questions children may ask about emergency preparedness in an age appropriate manner. These two kinds of questions are, questions about safe rooms, and questions about armed police and military personnel.
As you are well aware, many of the new emergency preparedness measures that have sprung up since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 can be terrifying to children. I find that one useful way parents can frame discussions of imposing emergency preparedness techniques is to remind the child that these plans are some of the steps their parents, school, city, and government are taking to keep him or her safe. I encourage parents to tell their children that it is the job of all of these people to keep him or her safe, and that they are all doing their best.
In the rest of this section, I will give examples of two kinds of questions children may ask regading emergency preparedness, and conversations between children and parents that may be useful in addressing these questions.
2 Kinds of Questions Children May Ask About Emergency Preparedness
♦ #1 - Safe Rooms at School
The first kind of question children may ask concerning emergency preparedness involves safe rooms at school. Steve, age six, asked his mother, Louise, about a school drill, stating, "I don’t want to go to the basement. Why can’t our moms come get us?" Louise invited further discussion by asking Steven what he had heard about going in the basement.
Steven responded by stating, "I heard all the girls in my class talking about it. They said we were going into the basement and had to stay there, and you couldn’t come." Louise then explained the purpose of the plan to go to the basement safe room in simple terms, telling Steven that it was like another form of the fire drills he was used to practicing. Steven stated, "I don’t care. I don’t want to go there! I want you to come and get me, and they said you couldn’t!"
In addressing Steven’s question, Louise observed that Steven’s underlying fear was of separation from her.
Four Guidelines to Adressing Steven's Underlying Fear
-- (1) Following guidelines we had discussed, Louise first acknowledged Steven’s fear by saying. "I can see how that could be scary."
-- (2) Louise then reassured Steven that she would get there as soon as she can by stating calmly, "I will come as soon as the school says it is safe to take you home. They will call me on the phone when it is safe, and I will come right away."
-- (3) Third, Louise explained to Steven that the basement safe room would not be a scary place to go. Louise stated, "Remember, you won’t be down in the basement by yourself. Your teacher and all the kids in your class will go with you. Because the basement is a safe place where everyone goes until their moms and dads can get there, all the kids from all the other classes will be there too. I think it might be kind of fun, being there with all your friends."
-- (4) Finally, Louise offered reassurance about the small possibility of a real emergency. Louise stated, "I don’t think you’ll ever have to really use the safe room, but I’m sure it will be good to practice going there one day just like you have fire drills. You can ask your teacher more about it at school tomorrow, and let me know what she says."
To answer more of Steven’s specific questions, I also recommended that Louise look into the kid-oriented pages at www.FEMA.org/kids.
♦ #2 - Presence of Armed Policemen During Times of Heightened Threat
A second kind of question children may ask concerning emergency preparedness concerns the presence of armed policemen during times of heightened threat. Jessica, age seven, became very frightened the first time she saw an armed policeman on the street, and asked her mother Lilly whether the policemen were going to use their guns on her. Clearly, the first task for Lilly was to provide Jessica with factual information. Lilly clearly and calmly stated, "No, they will not use their guns on us. Policemen carry those guns to protect us from any kind of danger."
Jessica stated, "But I’ve never seen them before! Why are they here now?" Lilly again provided factual information by stating, "They are here now because the situation in the world has changed. We are in a war, and when there is a war, we take extra precautions to make sure there are no problems in the city or in the country. Putting extra policemen on the streets is just one things the mayor and police department do to keep us safe." Jessica then asked, "What if somebody was going to do something bad to us?"
Lilly reassured Jessica by stating, "well, that’s why the policemen are here to protect us. I don’t think anything bad is going to happen. I haven’t heard that anything bad is going to happen, but if I do, I’ll let you know and we can talk about it."
For the parents of a child over the age of seven, I recommend the following two steps to provide additional details.
Tell the child that there is a Department of Homeland Security, created to protect the whole country. Explain that they tell your city what steps they think should be taken to keep everyone safe.
Wait to see how your child is processing this information. Then conclude by asking, "Does this answer your question? Or do you have some more things you would like to talk about?"
For a child over ten, I recommend that parents follow these same two steps, but substitute telling the child that the policemen and department of homeland security are working hard to keep everyone as safe as they can.
Think of a parent you are currently consulting regarding their child’s stress reaction to emergency preparedness plans. Would playing this section in your next session be useful to him or her?
In this section, we have discussed helping parents handle two kinds of questions children may ask about emergency preparedness in an age appropriate manner. These two kinds of questions are, questions about safe rooms, and questions about armed police and military personnel.
In the next section, we will discuss three differences among the different types of natural disasters, using the specific examples of hurricanes and earthquakes, and how they may affect children’s psychological well being. These three differences are, predictability, duration, and the scale of the disaster. We will also discuss three similarities common to all types of natural disasters, including cost and disruption, effect on families, and effects on children.
Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Carmona, R. H. (2007). A key partner in the team: Psychology's role in emergency preparedness. Psychological Services, 4(2), 135–139.
Woolsey, C., & Bracy, K. (2010). Emergency response and the psychological needs of school-age children. Traumatology, 16(2), 1–6.
Zanotti, D. C., Cromer, L. D., & Louie, A. D. (2016). The relationship of predeployment child-focused preparedness to reintegration attitudes and PTSD symptoms in military fathers with young children. Translational Issues in Psychological Science, 2(4), 429–438.
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