Helping your children cope with earthquakes

Special The 'Post': Alleviate anxiety by preparing ahead for an emergency, rather than sitting back and waiting.

A body is pulled from rubble from Japan earthquake 311 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS/Damir Sagolj)
A body is pulled from rubble from Japan earthquake 311 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS/Damir Sagolj)
In the past month we have witnessed horrific earthquakes and their aftermath in both New Zealand and Japan. This has led to an increase in anxiety for many and as bad as it is for adults, children too are left trying to cope with what they have heard and seen. With experts suggesting that Israel will soon experience a very extensive quake, one child recently told me that he has started to “worry that I too will some day be buried alive beneath the rubble.”
Anxiety can be crippling. Lack of predictability and the ability to plan lead to a feeling of loss of control, helplessness, and in extreme cases, a sense of hopelessness.
Generalized anxiety comes from simply not knowing where or when the next surprise will be.
While you may not think to prepare ahead for an emergency, you may someday find yourself responding to one. Given the option to sit back and wait for the next “event” to occur, the preferred alternative is to proactively protect yourself and your family. In other words, while not being able to plan the “when,” you can certainly work toward a “plan” for now and for the future, by being as prepared as possible yourselves, and in turn helping your children. What you do today, can help prepare you both physically and emotionally for tomorrow.
Here are a few suggestions: Acknowledge your own feelings. If you are feeling anxious, unsettled, or overwhelmed yourself right now, it is important to acknowledge that your feelings are completely normal.
If you are worried or feeling vulnerable, it is okay to admit it, notice that you are not alone and then – move on. Pick a 15 minute period during the week when you can think about your anxiety but otherwise keep busy, distracted and remind yourself, not “now.” Staying stuck with your anxiety won’t feel good and certainly won’t help you or your loved ones. While you may feel anxious, don’t lose sight of the fact that you have been and will continue to cope – both for yourself and for your family. One of the best ways to cope is by being prepared, both in terms of the physical logistics and your own psychological well-being. This is an excellent message to pass on to your children.
Get informed. Access reliable information so that you know just what to do in the event of an emergency.
Check out the guidelines offered through the IDF Home Front Command ( and heed their suggestions. For instance, evaluate the structural integrity of your home, your child’s school or day care and decide what can you do to improve things. Remember, your child may not actually be at home were something to happen. Are bookshelves and cabinets securely attached to the walls and heavy objects kept as low as possible? Studies have shown that the major damage in an earthquake is not from the earthquake itself but rather the aftermath of one.
Determine your own personalized emergency action plan (PEAP).
ASIDE FROM checking out the guidelines offered by the IDF, do a “fun” walk through your home and a tour of your neighborhood with your family. Walk around the house and show your children where specifically and in general are the best places to be should something happen.
Check out corners, under tables, doorways, safe rooms and even where to go outside of the house – be it the middle of the street or the park nearby. Play hide and seek in these areas, make colorful maps for kids to color, teach children how to cover their heads from potential debris, simulate movement of an earthquake and create scavenger hunts in the important areas, along with a game of “I spy or something else fun in the mamad (safe room) or stairwell as you all stand like soldiers with your hands on your head.
Once you have done this, practice how to actually respond in an emergency. Repetitive drills enable you to respond by rote and ensure that you (and your body) will “know” what to do in a crisis. If you know what to do and you do it more or less automatically, there is less chance that you will panic and more chance to do the right thing without thinking twice.
As you may be without light, telephones or an elevator, this means not just knowing that there are a lot of steps to the exit, but actually having walked down 46 steps with your hand on the wall and with your eyes closed to simulate darkness. It may seem foolish to you now, and you may not want to spend the time on it today, but it is precisely this type of practice that may save your life tomorrow. These seemingly silly activities reduce fear, build confidence and enable a more rapid response for your children. In a real emergency, every minute counts.
Prepare by preparing. What supplies should you have on hand assuming you may be on your own without any community support for two to three days? Check this out on the Internet with your children and have them help you put supplies in a bag and place them where everyone can access them if needed.
Are there specific things such as medications, diapers or glasses that you might also want to include? Is there a special extra teddy or blanket that should come along? Prepare a list of emergency phone numbers and ensure everyone knows where they are. Make sure you include a friend or family member who lives outside of your area who everyone can contact if need be.
Remember though that phone lines may not work and kids may need to play “old-fashioned relay” – passing messages along through others. Decide also on two places near home where your entire family can assemble. One might be in a safe spot in front of your home and another in a near by park.
Children often have access to media that as a parent you may be unaware of. As a result they may know far more than you think. It is important to realize that visual exposure, while at times helpful, may also be quite upsetting. Often the same photos are replayed again and again but children may think these are separate incidents. Blood and gore may be very frightening to a child. Children can go from being intensely concerned by details to nonchalantly playing with a friend in a short span of time. This is completely normal but does not mean a child is not affected.
Talk with your children. Give children plenty of opportunities to ask questions and try and understand just what their concerns might be. Often what we as adults worry about are not their concerns at all and vice versa. Some children may prefer to draw rather than talk. That is okay also.
Make the information developmentally and age appropriate. 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 your child with too much information or share your fears.
You may be feeling tense but they don’t have to. 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 deeper issues. It is important to clear up any inaccuracies that your children may have as this confusion may only complicate their understanding of events.
Not being able to predict can be especially difficult for both adults and children and this fear of the unknown, while normal, can be quite upsetting.
Let children know that you are there to protect them. When you can’t be around remind your children that there are other responsible adults such as teachers or siblings who may be with them. If you do get separated for even a short period of time, let your child know that you will be looking for him. Children who do have fears may be more anxious about separation from you, have a harder time with bedtime, be afraid of loud noises such as thunder or airplanes and may at times appear to regress in their behavior.
Teach your children how to relax. Practice relaxation exercises, breathing and guided imagery, distraction, 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 lake or cloud. Having a response that is calming is the perfect antidote to anxiety.
Be aware that how you cope will directly impact how they cope. If you cope well, your children will also cope well. Children need to see you as an effective role model. The more prepared and informed you are, the calmer and more confidently you will respond and the less vulnerable everyone will feel.
The difference between an emergency and a disaster depends primarily on your ability to cope. By expecting the unexpected and planning for it, you’ll know just what to do, feel more in control, and resume enjoyable activities more quickly.
The writer is a columnist in the Magazine section of The Jerusalem Post. She is a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in Ra’anana. For more information, please view her website at or contact her at [email protected]