Being in a shelter is not easy, at the best of times, and even for an adult, so how can we make this an easier experience for our children?
This advice is intended for children who have never been in a shelter, as well as those who sadly have been frequent visitors. Some may have a safe room in their own home or apartment building, others will be using a neighborhood shelter, and others taking refuge in a stairway. Since time in a sheltered space may vary from minutes to hours over the course of a day, some of the suggestions below may not apply to your family.
Most children will cope just fine with being in a shelter as they will be with their parents and will therefore feel protected. Assuming that parents remain calm and are in control, children will be calm and feel safe and secure. Too many accidents occur when people panic: go quickly, but carefully.
While trying to take cover it is also important to avoid falling down, having a heart attack, or getting into a car accident! Here are a few suggestions to help make this happen:
1. Talk to your children about using the “safe room”. At this point most of us already have had to respond to a "Color Red" warning. Most school age children will have been to their school's shelter as part of a regular drill and a good way to open up conversation is simply to have the children tell you what they did and saw. By also asking them what the best part was and what was the worst thing about their experience, you'll get an idea as to what issues your child may be thinking about.
Let them know that should the situation warrant it, you or someone else would be taking them into their designated "safe" space. For some families, a rehearsal or simply seeing the space may seem like a good idea and can help everyone plan and prepare. For others, it may only provoke anxiety. You know your family’s needs the best.
2. Make the information developmentally and age appropriate. The impact on your child of going to a safe space is very much dependent on their age and stage of emotional development, their temperament, your anxiety level and their proximity or exposure to previous or current danger. Typically, children do best with simple and straightforward explanations and not a lot of unnecessary details. While it is important to be honest and upfront, it serves no purpose to overwhelm them with your fears.
Many children know far more than we realize and most if not all children who attend school and have had prepatory drills and are both informed and quite “cool” about the whole thing. Many children have had experiences climbing ladders, squeezing through tight spaces and other opportunities that may make adults cringe! Children can go from being intensely concerned by details to nonchalantly playing with a friend in a short span of time. Adults on the other hand tend to be more uptight and anxious for more prolonged periods of time. You may be feeling tense but they don’t have to.
3. It is important to choose your words carefully to ensure that you get the message across that you hope to convey. When listening to their questions, you may need to probe deeper to find out what they are really asking, or maybe, it is only you, and not they, that see the deeper issues. It is important to clear up any inaccuracies that your children may have as this confusion can only complicate an already difficult situation. The element of not being able to predict can be especially difficult and this fear of the unknown is often what causes adults the most anxiety as we play games in our minds and imagine the worst. This is important to point out to children as often they do the same. For instance, you may not be able to tell them exactly when you may need to enter a shelter but you can tell them that it will be as soon as they hear the siren, perhaps they will find a special teddy bear waiting for them or can take one with them, or say whatever else that will help them plan and reduce anxiety. While it is fine to acknowledge that you too have concerns and cannot necessarily answer all their questions, you can still identify their concerns and see that they are addressed and clarified.
4. Older children worry more about their own safety and about that of the adults that are important to them. While some children may be oblivious, others may appear depressed, scared, withdrawn or preoccupied. The seriousness of things has not eluded them nor has it given them comfort. Adolescents especially need to talk, express their concerns and have their feelings validated. You are the one person who can provide this reassurance. You need to convey to them that their safety takes top priority and you are doing all that you can to ensure this.
5. Very young children may need little information beyond telling them that they will be spending time in a different room, they will be with their parents and can play there. Children need to know that you will be there for them and that if you can't be, someone else will, who is equally good. Lots of hugs and a good cuddle can go a long way to helping children feel comfortable.
Try to make the space as child friendly as possible. Let children pick one or two things that they set aside as special to bring with them if it is likely that they will have frequent or lengthy visits. This may be their favorite blanket, a puzzle or a toy. For older children, computer games, a book, musical instrument such as a guitar, a deck of cards or just a notepad and pen may be fine to actually leave in the shelter providing there is space. Arts and crafts supplies, photo albums and other family ideas are great to help pass the time. Now may be the perfect opportunity to work on creating a family collage. Singing or playing music on your smartphone or tablet can also be soothing for everyone. It can be fun to record your own family singing songs, telling stories, and taking "selfies".
6. Make the space child safe. There should not be dangerous shelving units or other heavy pieces of furniture that could fall off the wall, open plugs or sharp objects that a child can be injured by. A fan can be very helpful as the room can get quite stuffy.
7. Empower the children so they feel good about their safe space. Ask for their thoughts and input on various safety issues and plan assignments that work for each of them. Young children can be in charge of making temporary decorations and older children can help collect supplies. They can also help to organize the area. Each child can have a job specific to his or her age. Everyone can think of a special game or song that they will help to teach to the others.
Be clear and consistent about the rules for the shelter. For example, if the rule is that everyone has to enter the shelter as soon as a siren is sounded then children need to know that this is critical. There is no room for negotiation but you can give choices whenever possible. For example, a younger child needs to know that when a parent says to go he must do so. However, he can be given choices as to whom he sits next to, and can choose which game to play once he is there.
8. Food and drinks should be child friendly. A supply of healthy and easy to store snacks should be kept in the shelter along with a few special treats. (See recommendations from Home Front Command). Read up and be prepared on what supplies you should have with you and know what the suggested emergency procedures and numbers are for your area. Keep this list close at hand.
9. Consider the health needs of your child. A supply of children’s medications should be available in the protected space in the event that they will be needed. Keep some diapers for young children and maybe a bucket or chemical toilet for older children and adults if it looks like you may have to spend long periods of time there. Comfort is important. Keep a second set of clothes ready for your child so that a change of clothing can be done easily.
10. Think relaxation. Practice relaxation exercises, yoga, meditation or prayer to enable everyone to feel calm. Young children do well when they can pretend to be limp spaghetti noodles and older children like to pretend that they are lying on a nice beach or floating on a pond. Children can pick a part of their body that "feels good" and just focus on that spot for a few seconds. They have wonderful imaginations.
11. Help children feel that they are in control. Although we would all acknowledge that these are very unpredictable times, it is helpful for children to have predictability. When they are not in the shelter, it is important to keep up with routine as much as possible. Schedules with respect to meals and bedtimes, and camp, chugim and play dates with other children help give everyone a sense of normalcy. Routine is also important should we need to use our protected space over time. If children become familiar with a pattern, they know what to expect and are less anxious and more matter of fact.
12. Use television as a tool to help you and the family relieve stress yet beware of the impact that it has on the children. Children may not be able to differentiate reality from fantasy, don't need to see repetitive traumatic events and a television on in the background may not be quite as harmless for little ears as you think. Renting a video or exchanging videos with friends may be the best form of family entertainment and can be a useful distraction along with your radio.
13. Finally, in order to look after our children we must look after ourselves. If you or your children are not coping well, get professional help to enable you to be less anxious. Children need to see you as an effective role model. We all hope and pray that soon we will be able to look back at this with humor. Preparation is a wonderful way to cope when we are not yet quite sure just what it is we are going to be coping with. In the meantime, while there are no easy answers and these are only suggestions, enabling your child to feel comfortable and secure is one of the best things you can provide during these difficult times.
Dr. Batya L. Ludman is a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in Ra'anana, and author of the book, Life's Journey: Exploring Relationships-- Resolving Conflicts. Send correspondence to firstname.lastname@example.org or visit her website at www.drbatyaludman.com