From the Homefront: Talking to your kids about emergencies

When I am explaining Coast Guard life to other people, I often say our active duty members run toward the emergencies while the families have to leave them behind to stay safe. Those emergencies can be weather-related, natural disasters or any number of issues that arrive by air or sea

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Twice a month, Coast Guard All Hands will feature “From the Homefront,” a column for Coast Guard spouses by Coast Guard spouse Shelley Kimball. Shelley has been married to Capt. Joe Kimball, chief of the office of aviation forces at Coast Guard headquarters, for 14 years. She currently serves as an advisor for the Military Family Advisory Network.

Written by Shelley Kimball

The Gohier family, from left, John, Paula, Malia, 13, and Adrian, 12, watching a sunrise together.  The Gohier family weathered Hurricane Katrina 10 years ago. Photo courtesy of Paula Gohier.
The Gohier family, from left, John, Paula, Malia, 13, and Adrian, 12, watching a sunrise together. The Gohier family weathered Hurricane Katrina 10 years ago. Photo courtesy of Paula Gohier.

As Hurricane Katrina came barreling toward New Orleans, the Gohier family had to divide. Chief Petty Officer John Gohier, a damage controlman, was on duty. He stayed, while Paula evacuated to Tennessee with their two children, Malia and Adrien, who were 3 and 4 at the time.

“It was really hard to explain to the children,” Paula Gohier said. “It was hard for me to reassure them that Daddy would be okay because the last I talked with him, he was stuck on the interstate as the hurricane was making landfall. It was several days later before I heard from him.”

When I am explaining Coast Guard life to other people, I often say our active duty members run toward the emergencies while the families have to leave them behind to stay safe. Those emergencies can be weather-related, natural disasters or any number of issues that arrive by air or sea

Not only do our families have to figure out how to manage alone, we have to figure out how to explain it to our kids. There are some great resources out there to help guide us.

Portrait of Shelley Kimball.
Portrait of Shelley Kimball.

Paula Gohier figured out what to do as it was happening. She said that she and her kids could see the Coast Guard rescue response on the news, and she was able to explain that John stayed behind to help others.

“I just told my children that Daddy has a really important job to help people stay safe,” Paula said. “Because of the hurricane he has to stay and make sure other families are rescued and can stay safe and together.”

She said she could tell her kids were absorbing the information because they would tell strangers about how important and special their dad was.

This kind of involved approach is the best way to manage an emergency, according to Angela Mickalide, Ph.D., a member of the American Red Cross Scientific Advisory Council who advised on the production of the Sesame Street “Let’s Get Ready”  guide for families.

“Children are very astute,” she said. “They can sense when something is wrong – they can sense stress and anxiety. The best thing you can do to make sure your children will be okay in an emergency is to prepare.”

Keeping kids in the loop as families respond to an emergency will help keep them calm in the long run, she said. This doesn’t mean taking them to get in line for hurricane supplies when the shelves are bare. That won’t create a positive family dynamic. But letting them help prepare an emergency kit or talking to them about why disasters occur can give them a sense of purpose. She said the Red Cross even has an interactive game for kids called Monster Guard, which helps them figure out the right response for different kinds of disasters.

“Getting the kids involved early will make the experience a lot smoother, with a lot less tension,” Mickalide said. “It will help them feel as though they have some control over the situation so they can be as relaxed with as little anxiety as possible.”

Portrait of Angela Mickalide, Ph.D., a member of the American Red Cross Scientific Advisory Council.
Portrait of Angela Mickalide, Ph.D., a member of the American Red Cross Scientific Advisory Council.

When families are in the midst of an emergency situation, she said, be sure to be patient, stay positive, and keep an eye on the images kids are seeing on television, newspapers or online.

“Talk to them, discuss their fears and their feelings,” she said. “Talk in words they understand so that they truly feel part of the conversation. Present a realistic picture that is both honest and manageable.”

For the Gohier family, seeing the flooding and aftereffects of the Hurricane was another stage of emergency response. They could tell that there had been flooding, but they didn’t know how much of it affected their home.

“Looking at the flooding, we weren’t sure if our home would be there when we returned,” Paula Gohier said. “I assured them that if the house was messed up, we would get it fixed and replace any toys and their beds. For some reason they were particularly worried about their beds.”

Fortunately, the Gohier family returned to their home to find very little damage. They were able to be part of the cleanup efforts for the city, Paula Gohier said, and the kids enjoyed interacting with others who had come home after the storm.

Mickalide said that being part of the post-emergency response can have beneficial effects on kids, too.

“Afterwards, consider involving children in the recovery process,” she said. “For example, let the kids help clean up with recovery efforts in age-appropriate ways as this may increase their sense of control over the situation.”

Preparing ahead of time and remaining informed can help lessen the impacts of emergencies, Mickalide said, but some things just can’t be foreseen. In those situations, parents need to be the guides on how to respond.

The Red Cross can help provide crucial emergency information. Photo courtesy of the Red Cross.
The Red Cross can help provide crucial emergency information. Photo courtesy of the Red Cross.

“Every disaster is different.  Various weather events or even a hazardous materials spill can disrupt normal family life,” Mickalide said. “Children may become anxious, confused or frightened. As an adult, you’ll need to cope with the disaster in a way that will help children avoid developing a permanent sense of loss. It is important to give children guidance that will help reduce their fears.”

How have you helped your kids deal with emergencies? Share your stories and experiences below.

Resources:

Sesame Street “Let’s Get Ready” program for families : The guide helps small kids and their families get ready for potential emergencies. That may include learning names and phone numbers or packing an emergency kit. The bilingual, multimedia resource provides ideas and activities for keeping kids calm and aware of how to be ready when they unexpected happens.

 

Click the image above to be taken to the PBS resilience resources from Arthur.
Click the image above to be taken to the PBS resilience resources from Arthur.

Red Cross Emergency App : This free app has 35 alerts about conditions that could cause emergencies It also provides information for adults on how to respond before, during, and after emergencies.

Monster Guard App: An interactive game for kids from the Red Cross that helps them figure out the right response for different kinds of disasters.

Arthur Shelter from the Storm : The producers of the show Arthur developed a show specifically about a storm disaster response that included a military family as part of the story line. It includes a video and resilience talking points and activities for families to use to discuss emergencies with kids.

Helping kids cope : A section of the Ready.gov website, which is a partnership between the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, is devoted to advising paretns on how to help their kids cope with emergencies.

Helping kids during crisis : This information is not just relevant for smaller kids, but for older kids, too. This link is an excellent catchall of free information. The American School Counselor Association has information and downloadable webinars about helping kids through crisis, but it also includes a long list of relevant links from other agencies like the American Psychological Association and the Department of Education.

The views expressed herein are those of the author and are not to be construed as official or reflecting the views of the Commandant or of the U.S. Coast Guard.

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