David was once outgoing and happy, without a care in the world. Now he’s withdrawn and sad. Annie can’t seem to calm herself. AndSteve is always on the verge of tears. These children are victims of natural disasters. They’ve lost their secure home life. Their parents aren’t coping well, and the children have been traumatized by the loss of a loved one, a pet, or a cherished possession.
In the last two years, natural disasters have seemed to multiply in cataclysmic proportions. We’ve seen floods ravage the Midwest, hurricanes wreak havoc in the South, and fires and earthquakes destroy entire neighborhoods in California. And natural disasters don’t discriminate; adults and children alike are devastated equally.
How does disaster impact children? And how can the church prepare to help children when disaster strikes?
How Disaster Affects Children
Disaster turns a child’s world upside down. Security is gone. Parents are often discouraged and confused. Just getting through a day at a time is all anyone can do. Children don’t understand what’s happening around them, and they’re frightened and insecure. They fear recurrence of the disaster, injury to themselves or loved ones, death, or being left alone. Children may display regressive behavior such as thumb-sucking, backward steps in toilet training, or fear of going to sleep. They may experience psychosomatic symptoms such as headaches and tummy aches.
What You Can Do
Recovery from a disaster involves many things. Getting life back to as near normal as possible is the first concern. But as adults assess and take steps to recovery, children are often left out. That’s where the church can be of greatest help. Here’s what your church can do.
Train your staff.
Before disaster strikes, ask a representative from the American Red Cross (check your phone book for a chapter near you) or a counselor to explain children emotional needs in disaster situations. Help your volunteers understand that children will need a listening ear, understanding, affirmation, smiles, affection, reassurance, optimism, patience, and a normal routine.
Have a Plan
Make a plan to meet kids’ needs. Follow this step-by-step guide if disaster strikes.
1. Locate needy children.
List directly affected families who need immediate help and list children in each family.
2. Personally visit each home.
Report specific needs and any progress at meeting those needs.
3. Talk openly and regularly in classrooms.
Even when the teacher tires of hearing about the disaster, children may still want to talk about it.
4. List children’s prayer needs.
Then pray for children, families, and agencies helping children’s families.
5. Remember the little things.
Send letters, cards, or small gifts to encourage children.
6. Recruit children.
Older kids can offer free child care, plan play-days for toddlers, sponsor a family night with movies and popcorn, collect food and clothing, or have a bake sale to buy necessary items for victims. Kids will feel better if they can contribute also.
7. Be creative.
Have children develop puppet plays about the disaster and recovery. Help the class write and perform skits to role play emotions. Lead the children in making up songs, poems, or prayers that express their experience. Provide tape recorders for children to interview each other. Provide an
outlet for emotions through creative play such as drawing, painting, or playing with clay.
8. Give kids control in the classroom.
Provide dolls and stuffed animals for children to comfort. Completion-oriented activities such as puzzles will give the children a sense of control.
9. Maintain a routine.
Kids’ lives are in chaos, and they long for some sense of order. Encourage your teachers to make class time more structured than usual so kids know what to expect each time they come.
Mary Davis works with children in Iowa.
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