The International Day for Disaster Reduction is October 12. And my thoughts are turning more that direction than toward Halloween decorations, costumes and candy.
At this time of year in 2011, those of us in the northeastern U.S. were all reminded that nature can play terrible tricks. We had a blizzard resulting in power outages so severe some lasted for weeks. Halloween was cancelled. We went into survival mode.
We certainly weren’t alone in this. Any family that has dealt with the devastation of tornado, earthquake, blizzard, hurricane, flood or wildfires knows that life can change dramatically in a matter of hours. During such times, people can experience tremendous challenges to their sense of security, their sense of home, and their sense of personal strength. They also can experience what it means for family and community to come together to help and support one another.
The UN General Assembly established the International Day for Disaster Reduction in December 1989. Its purpose is to raise awareness of ways to reduce trauma following disasters. Governments are encouraged to set up systems to prepare for inevitable disasters. Parents and teachers are encouraged to be proactive in their efforts to protect their students and families.
We can’t prevent the unexpected. But we can build our capacity, and that of our family, to cope. Personal strength is only partially a result of genetics and temperament. It is primarily a function of the coping skills we’ve learned and our willingness to put some time into strengthening our inner resources and outer connections. Parenting well in danger zones means becoming an emotional rock our children can cling to and giving them the resources they need to come through hard times.
But preparing for emergencies is most effective when everyone in the family is involved. An international day is as good a time as any for parents to put good intentions about preparedness into action:
- First, deal with your own anxieties and fears about weather events. Kids pick up our feelings, no matter what we say. If you have fears grounded in something that happened to you when you were young, do the psychological work you need to do to heal. You deserve to feel more secure. Your kids need you to be someone they can hang onto if there is an emergency.
- Talk to kids about weather events that historically have happened in your area. Read young children stories as a low-key way to introduce the topic. If you need some help with finding titles, take a look at the University of North Carolina Extension Service list of age-appropriate books that talk about how kids dealt with natural disasters.
- Open a discussion about what your family could do. Strike a balance between being honest with kids about possibilities and reassuring them that there are usually people around to help. Validate their fears and feelings. Then move the discussion to how they can get help and how they can use their own good skills to manage if a disaster happens. Listen to their ideas and support their sense of personal strength.
- Prepare an emergency supply kit. We all know what we should do: Stock up on nonperishable food and water; keep a supply of prescription medications on hand; have a plan for reaching those we need to reach. (See a checklist here.) Many of us become inured to the reality that a disaster may happen here, to us. It’s time we all get busy and just do the tasks of emergency preparedness that we all intend to get around to and don’t. An emergency is far easier to handle when we can reach our loved ones and basic creature comforts are taken care of.
- Involve the children in making the emergency supply kit. Even preschoolers can help put together a first-aid kit and stock a shelf with nonperishable foods. Make sure everyone knows where the flashlights and extra batteries are kept. Post phone numbers for fire, police, and ambulance in a central place. Post phone numbers of relatives and neighbors who need to know you’re okay there too.
- Make sure your children understand whether they should come home or stay put if there is a natural emergency. It is likely that they’ll be at school or daycare if the unexpected happens. Make sure the children know who to call and where to go if they are caught outside.
- Promise to use your own good sense. Take the weather service seriously. Protect your home if you can but put people’s safety first. Stay home or evacuate as the authorities advise. Inconvenience is better than trauma.
Kids, like adults, do better when they have a plan. We don’t get as fearful if we have an idea of what to expect or what we’re supposed to do. It’s when we don’t know what to do that we get the most anxious and upset.
I wish International Day for Disaster Reduction had a snappier name. With a nod to the Boy Scouts, it would be more kid-friendly if it were called something simple like “Be Prepared Day.” But whatever we call it, having a special day can be just what we need to get us to build our family’s preparedness for the unexpected.