Safety Tips for Children During Common Natural Disasters

Children are often the worst affected by natural disasters. So, if you live near a calamity-prone area, here is how you can safeguard their mental, emotional and physical well-being.

By Moina Memon

Safety Tips for Children During Common Natural Disasters
"We cannot stop natural disasters, but we can arm ourselves with knowledge: so many lives wouldn't have to be lost if there was enough disaster-preparedness." ― Petra Nemcova, model and TV host-turned-philanthropist

According to reports published last year by the International Disaster Database (IDD), India has faced more than 300 natural disasters in the last 17 years. Due to the diverse landscape of the country, we experience everything from drought, floods, earthquake, epidemics, landslides and storms. Apart from the devastating death toll, natural disasters have affected close to a billion people in the country. According to official reports by the state governments in 2017, more than 1,200 people died in flood-related incidents. 

Children are the most vulnerable

When natural calamities occur, it is children who are the most vulnerable. Worse, in such situations, they also fall prey to communicable diseases, afterwards. For instance, after a flood, children are more likely to succumb to water-borne infections or develop diarrhoea, fever and acute respiratory complications.

What's more, a natural calamity can often be life-changing for survivors. Children especially need special care after such natural disasters. They may even need counselling to overcome trauma. More important, in some case, they might develop catastrophic after-effects like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

In the year 2015, floods and cyclones wrecked Chennai city. There was such devastation, it took more than a week for the city to limp back to normalcy. But there is a more recent example of how much a natural disaster can affect people and places. This year, floods and landslides followed heavy rain across Kerala state and also in Kodagu region of Karnataka. There was tremendous loss of life and considerable damage to properties. 

According to Dr Santosh Atmanand Revankar, a consultant physician and diabetologist at a leading hospital in Bengaluru: "After a flood, there is a high chance of water-borne diseases like typhoid, cholera and hepatitis A and also, vector-borne diseases like malaria and dengue. During and after a flood, children are also prone to hypothermia so preventive measures should be taken".

Having lived in Chennai during the floods, I have a first-person account of the devastation it caused then. After the floods, we did the following:

  • My daughter’s school and surroundings had to be thoroughly disinfected before the children could go back to their lessons. 
  • Family doctors recommended health checkups and vaccinations for children as a precautionary measure.
  • For a month or two post the floods, we avoided eating out and ensured we had drinking water from home, with us. 
  • After the floods, we did pest control at home to keep mosquitoes and other bugs away.

Parents, make your children aware!

In India, coastal regions like Chennai and Mumbai are more prone to floods. If you are living in a vulnerable region, as a parent, it is important to help your children understand why and how such calamities happen and what you need to do, to stay safe. Talking to children about these matters is vital. If a calamity warning, for example, a cyclone alert, is doing the rounds, then do bring the topic up with your child. You could do this during story time or any other one-on-one occasion. Talk about what causes cyclones, how it is possible to track this natural phenomenon, why it is important to be alert when a warning is sounded and so on. Approaching the topic in this manner, works for most age groups.

How to talk to children about calamities

There are many creative ways of bringing up serious subjects like natural calamities with children. For example, parents could present it as a story by saying, 'Sometimes, we get blessed with too much of a downpour', or 'The wind is playing with the trees'. Explaining the reality in the most reassuring tone is crucial here. 

So, families that live in regions more prone to flooding, landslides, earthquakes or hailstorms can accordingly, build similarly relatable and easily understood stories. Remember, older children tend to know and be more aware of things around them — so it is better to ensure that you tell them what is happening. They should not get their information from peers, social media, the television, the Internet, or other sources. 

Why tell children about natural calamities? 

  • Let your children know in advance about predicted or extreme weather conditions. It will help them be mentally prepared and feel safe.
  • Children find routine comforting. So, going to school, attending after-school activities are things that matter. Hence, do prepare them for a disrupted routine during calamities. It will help them process the event better.
  • Assure them that life will be back to normal in a few days. Doing so, will reassure them and prevent them from becoming anxious.
  • Let them feel secure and safe. When your children know you are there to talk to them and help them understand what can be done, they don’t feel helpless.

  • You can be creative and suggest superman-like solutions to divert their minds. (Applicable only for small or very young children!)
Measures you can take to safeguard your children

When a natural disaster strikes, the safety of your children becomes paramount. While it is impossible to stop or change a calamity, as a parent, there are certain things you can do to safeguard your children.

  • Be alert and recognise the warning signs — the tremors before an earthquake or, the very heavy and windy rains that occur just before a storm. Also, with older children, make sure you take the time to listen to and answer all their questions. 
  • Equip children with helpline numbers and encourage them to memorise the phone numbers of family members who live out of the city/state in case they need to call someone during an emergency.
  • Decide on a meeting place in the event a family member is lost. This also applies to many other situations like a crowded marketplace or a mall or a fair.
  • Role-play and simulation work best for most age groups, so an earthquake drill or a fire drill could be practised at home and at school. For example, during an earthquake, tell your children to duck their heads under the table or leave the building as soon as possible.
  • Help your older children to put together a disaster supplies bag — containing water, food, clothes, torch, cells, phone, cash, etc. Why not get your children to make their own ‘Disaster Kit’ to keep themselves occupied during their out-of-routine days.

How to keep them emotionally strong

As a parent, it is your responsibility to equip your kids with the life skills and the mindset to help them deal with such a situation when it arises. So, for your children’s emotional well-being, you can do the following:

  • First and foremost, stay calm Mom and Dad! Children tend to sense the worry of a parent and react just the same way.
  • Keep them away from watching the news on TV. Most news channels exaggerate images and videos, which, in turn, could be disturbing.
  • Asking your children to draw pictures to describe a calamity or their feelings about it, could be another way to release built-up anxiety. Making an empathy book about feelings or playing with emotion flash cards can also help.

Safety tips for children during earthquakes

As numerous regions of India are earthquake-prone, it is important to educate your children on how to stay safe during or after an earthquake. This includes:

  • Getting out of the house and finding a protective spot only a few metres away.
  • If inside the house, ensuring that children keep away from windows as these shatter at the impact of a quake.
  • Making it clear that children must stay away from street lights or electric poles as protection against electrocution.

Also Read: Tackling Respiratory Infections in children

As a parent, your first priority is to protect and shelter your children. But, making them aware of natural disasters or calamities is also necessary — it can help them understand how inter-dependent the natural world is. Also, helping them in disaster-preparedness is a great way to teach them how to stay alert and be safe. 

About the author:

Written by Moina Memon on 5 November 2018.

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