Advice From Our Experts

Preparing Your Family for a Disaster

If an earthquake hit tomorrow, would you be prepared? What you would do if a wildfire was raging within miles of your home and you had one hour to grab your belongings and evacuate? How would you handle situations like these with your children?

Natural disasters often happen with little or no warning and that’s why it’s important for families to have a plan in place for before a traumatic event takes place.

Where to start

“The first place to start is at home,” says Dr. Jeffrey Upperman, MD, director of the Trauma Program and Pediatric Disaster Resources and Training Center at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.

Openly discuss with your children what to do if disaster strikes. Below are just a few questions that should be asked during your discussion.

  • How will everyone evacuate the home and where will everyone meet up?
  • How will you reach each other? Keep in mind that phone systems will not likely work. Text is more likely to go through.
  • Discuss what would happen if a disaster were to happen while in school.

Routinely practice disaster and evacuation drills so that when the occasion arises, springing into action is second nature. Nobody should be standing around waiting for instructions on what to do or where to go. Below is a list of items that you and your family can gather together.

Preparing Your Family for a Disaster

Get to know other emergency plans

Once a family plan has been established, make sure you know the emergency plan at your place of employment. “Parents should understand plans for their kids’ school and day care centers, and help them get it if they don’t have one,” Dr. Upperman says.

Communicate with your child

Preparing Your Family for a Disaster

The hours, days and weeks after a disaster can be very challenging for a child to process simple questions like: What happened? Why did this happen? What if it happens again?

Children are physically and psychologically more vulnerable than adults. That’s why it’s important to communicate to children on their level, and not treat them like ‘little adults.’

“The first thing is to reassure their safety,” says Stephanie Marcy, PhD, a licensed psychologist and assistant professor of clinical pediatrics at CHLA. “Stick with a routine, let them know that they are going to be ok and try to provide some familiar object from the house so that if you have to leave they can take it with them to provide a sense of familiarity.”

If a family’s home is not inhabitable following a disaster, it’s important that kids know “you’re there with them and you’re going to be ok because you’re together,” Dr. Marcy says. “Kids can survive a lot of things if they are with a familiar person they trust.”

And while media coverage can inform people of hazards and conditions following a disaster, the information can be scary for kids.

“The images that a grownup is viewing and has context to understand, a little child or even a school-age child may not. They may be seeing images of people in different states of distress and it could be very scary to them,” Dr. Marcy adds. “Be very careful what you’re talking about and what you’re showing your children, but stay informed so you can make good decisions as a parent. Just communicate with them and let them know what’s happening so that there are as few surprises as possible as you go along.”

After a disaster

The 'after' is just as important as the 'before' and 'during' for you and your child.

Listen and talk

  • Clarify any misunderstandings.
  • Provide as much factual information as you can given age.

Be calm and supportive

  • Children can often mimic adult reactions so, staying calm will help them and you.
  • Don't criticize regressive behavior. Some children may lose skills they previously had, such as using the toilet.

Let children express themselves

  • Allow your child to express themselves by telling a story or drawing a picture.

Try to re-establish your regular routine