When a Natural Disaster Upends Your Child's Life, Here's What To Do Next

Parenting your way through a natural disaster is difficult. However, there are ways to navigate the experience without making it harder on yourself and your child.

Child standing next to flooded road
Photo: Getty

My four-year-old put down his toy mermaid, looked me in the eyes and asked, "Daddy, do you remember when our house got flooded?" He said it with such earnestness that I immediately began to worry just how much of the past few months he had internalized and what the long-term effects would be of doing so. But before I could even respond, he was focused on the mermaid again, seemingly forgetting the question that was asked with such urgency mere seconds before.

For me, shifting gears isn't so easy. Not only do I remember the flood, but it's also all I've been able to think about since September 1, 2021. On that sleepless night, my wife and I stayed at the top of our stairs listening to the Perkiomen Creek destroy the main living area of our southeastern Pennsylvania home. We debated whether or not to rip the kids from their beds and evacuate through our second-floor window. Although we did take the kids out through the window, we only did it after the flooding had stopped, as a means of shielding them from the destruction below.

In many ways, parenting your way through a natural disaster isn't all that different from raising kids under ordinary circumstances. It's all about making decisions to keep them safe in the present moment and minimizing the ways in which those decisions will impact them down the road.

Maintain Routine During a Disaster

According to Colleen B. Kradel, LICSW, founder of Be Well Better Counseling Services in Martinsburg, West Virginia, many of the same best practices that apply to day-to-day parenting are just as relevant when navigating life after a natural disaster. "One of the most important things parents can do is maintain as much of their daily routine as possible," she says. "When so much feels out of their control, it is important to remind [kids] what they can control can help give back some power they may feel they have lost due to the event."

In this regard, my wife and I seemed to have nailed our first taste of post-peril parenting. We minimized missed school days for our daughter, who started kindergarten two days before the flood, stuck to our relaxed bedtime "routine," moved back into our home the minute it didn't pose an immediate safety or health risk to us, and talked regularly to the kids about what was happening and how it made them feel.

Focus On How Kids Experience The Event

We also allowed our kids to graffiti the walls, set up tents in the construction zone that used to be their living room and generally tried to make the entire experience appear as much like an exciting new adventure as was possible under the circumstances. The latter is especially important when it comes to minimizing the long-term damage following traumatic events such as natural disasters.

"Surprisingly, it is not the event children experience but how they experience it that makes all the difference in their mental state," says Amy Armstrong, LISW, a family therapist, certified parent coach, author of Real-Time Parenting and the co-founder of The Center for Family Resolution in Worthington, Ohio.

In addition to her professional experience, Armstrong understands disasters on a very personal level; she and her then 15-year-old son, Ben, were rescued by firefighters from their second-floor window during a house fire. In the weeks and months that followed the event, Armstrong says she and her son focused on all of the people who came to their aid, from the courageous firefighters and welcoming neighbors to the kind folks who dropped off clothing. "To this day, Ben remembers our long talks and time together talking about the fire and all our mixed emotions that came with it. He has positive memories of feeling cared for, even though he had to escape for his life."

Parents Need Self-Care Too

While my wife and I may have passed the test on caring for our children, there's a good chance we failed the sections on caring for ourselves. At least I did.

I didn't even notice how blatantly I'd been ignoring my own well-being until I noticed a problem with my heart. Not the symbolic one poets have written about since the beginning of time, but the literal fist-sized organ that's responsible for pumping blood and keeping me alive. About a month after the flood, a constant tightness in the left side of my chest suddenly appeared. Most of the time it was merely an annoyance, like a nagging headache, but there were a few occasions when the pain was so sharp I briefly considered driving myself to the emergency room.

Based on the reassuring results I got back from my doctor, the chest pain wasn't a sign I was about to suffer a massive heart attack. It was likely a physical reaction to the stress I had been trying to push down and ignore. My head no longer had room for all the constant worries and fear taking up space in there, so my body took over.

My approach to post-trauma mental health—the old-school ignore it until it goes away or you drop dead from it approach—doesn't benefit you or your children in the long run. Like those oxygen masks on the plane, you need to take care of your own mental health before you can be of any service to those who need you following a disaster.

"It is important that parents take care of their own mental health needs during this time so that they can help take care of the child's needs," says Kradel. "Children are aware and watch how their parents cope and will learn and model what they are doing to help themselves through the event and after."

Help Build Resiliency

Many natural disasters are the product of climate change. Georgina Campbell, MBE, an International Medical Corps' Global Mental Health and Psychosocial Support Technical Advisor based out of the United Kingdom and a mother who's passionate about the endangered world her children inherit, emphasizes the need to help kids understand the disasters that come from our changing world.

"We shouldn't [sugarcoat] what we tell our children about climate change," says Campbell, who has more than a decade of experience delivering mental health services to survivors of natural disasters, infectious diseases, and conflict. "Parents should look for ways to help their children build their resiliency, autonomy, and self-confidence and prepare for the new normal, but the truth is nobody knows what will happen."

Campbell explains that building resiliency means changing and growing in different elements of our life at the same time. She says that we need to help children understand and manage their emotions. "Let them know it is ok to feel nervous and overwhelmed; that is a normal and healthy response to a scary situation," she says.

It's also important to give kids space to explore what they are feeling and find ways to manage those feelings. Breathing techniques, body scanning, and putting a name to physical sensations can help.

Although we may not have any say over the natural disasters that are routinely overwhelming this planet right now, we do have control over how we prepare our children to face an uncertain future. "Parents can educate themselves on the climate crisis, so they help their children navigate through what's happening and have open conversations with their children about why it's happening," she says. "Adults should model their responses so children learn to name and regulate their emotions and recognize when they're in distress."

Whether you're navigating the aftereffects of a natural disaster or simply dealing with the routine challenges of day-to-day life, taking care of ourselves and providing space that allows for us to understand the whole experience and not just the bad parts, is advice I'll be taking too.

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