When Disaster Strikes: Keeping Kids Safe & Healthy

Kids safe and Healthy

Keeping kids safe and healthy

Storm season is a reality for communities across the Midwest. Whether a tornado, flood or other severe weather incident, a natural disaster can strike at any time, leaving families, friends, neighbors and communities vulnerable to physical and emotional threats during and after a weather event. Children’s Nebraska stands in support of its communities, and our experts are sharing guidance to help you feel supported before, during and after an emergency.

Supporting your child’s mental health needs

In the wake of a natural disaster, families may notice that children of all ages experience varying emotional responses to the stress of an event. This is normal – traumatic events can put the body into fight-or-flight mode, flooding it with chemicals such as adrenaline and cortisol, which can leave a child exhausted or worried. Parents and caregivers can help children cope with feelings of anxiety, frustration and fear for their safety by utilizing age-appropriate strategies.

Renee Rafferty, Children’s senior vice president for Behavioral Health and a licensed mental health practitioner, and Mike Vance, Ph.D., Children’s director of Behavioral Health, offer key tips on how to support children’s mental health around natural disasters.

  • Help children process the news of an event and avoid continuous streaming of damage footage via media coverage or social media. Children may be impacted by how they receive this information, and events can take on a greater intensity if shared through peers or in the classroom.
  • Don’t try to talk a child out of emotions. Meet them where they are and validate their feelings to help manage them. Encourage them to deepen your conversation with prompts such as:
  • “Tell me more about what you are feeling.”
  • “Does it feel like I understand?”
  • “What would help you right now?”
  • “Is there something that makes you feel safer?”
  • Once a child is calm and relaxed, talk about the ways the family and community pulled together to take care of each other and the ways they were kept safe.
  • Encourage all family members to relieve stress by having conversations with loved ones, utilizing deep breathing techniques and maintaining healthy habits and routines such as exercise and sleep.
  • Reassure children by pointing out the advantages of current technology to predict and warn of possible threats to public safety. Remind them of practiced safety plans and safe spaces at school, in public places and at home.
  • Create a family donation care package to help children offer support to their community.

It may take time for children to start to feel normal after a natural disaster. If the child has an existing mental health condition, a traumatic event could increase their symptoms. If a parent notices that their child is not coping well, seek help from a primary care physician or a mental health professional.

Additional guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) may found at https://www.cdc.gov/childrenindisasters/helping-children-cope.html.

Supporting your family’s physical health needs

Alice Sato, M.D., Ph.D., hospital epidemiologist and a specialist with Children’s Infectious Disease team, shares the following guidance on how families can stay safe after a natural disaster for their health and welfare.

  • Exercise caution near damaged buildings and homes. Do not enter a damaged building until local authorities determine it is safe.
  • Be aware of hazards from exposed nails, broken glass, bits of pottery or metal and other debris. Have any puncture wound evaluated by a healthcare provider. “Dirty” wounds (particularly if from debris or floodwater) may need more than soap and water cleaning at home. Seek care or contact your physician for guidance.
  • Follow local health department and utility company advice on safety, including prevention of carbon monoxide poisoning and avoiding gas leaks or electrical lines.
  • Throw away perishable foods that have not been properly refrigerated due to power outages or that have an unusual odor, color or texture. When in doubt, throw it out.
  • Follow any advice regarding water quality, particularly if water boiling or treatment is advised.

Additional guidance from the CDC is available at https://www.cdc.gov/disasters/index.html.

For families with children who are immunocompromised, such as persons with cancer or on immune system suppressing medications, Children’s Infectious Disease team advises extra caution:

  • Take extra care with food safety.
  • Water quality may be impacted during times of flooding and may not be obvious. The use of boiled or treated water may be useful in the days following storms. Follow health department guidance. Infant formula should always be prepared with safe water.
  • Fungal and mold spores in the soil can be disrupted and more likely to be inhaled, which could lead to an infection in the sinuses or lungs. Immunocompromised individuals should avoid inhaling dust if possible. Wearing a mask may be helpful.

Children’s Nebraska serves the needs of children and families across the region. Please reach out to your child’s health care provider with any questions or find a Children’s pediatric expert at ChildrensNebraska.org/PrimaryCare.

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