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Evacuation preparation eases stress in kids
MISSISSIPPI STATE – The Mississippi River is predicted to reach historic flood levels this spring, and families can help their children by planning together for potential evacuations.
Mississippi State University Extension Service experts advise parents to take steps to prepare their children physically and emotionally so they can better deal with the challenges of being displaced from home.
“Talk to children in ways that are appropriate for their ages and involve them in preparing for evacuation,” said Rita Tanksley, Extension child and family development area agent in Winston County. “Discussing your disaster plan, working together to pack important belongings, and listening to their questions and fears will give your children a sense of control and reduce their anxiety.”
While parents may be preoccupied with gathering important paperwork, children will wonder what is going to happen to their toys and treasures.
“To avoid increasing a child’s anxiety, be honest and don’t make false promises,” Tanksley said. “Assure them that you and other adults will do everything you can to make sure they stay safe. Talk about all of the helpers, such as police officers, fire fighters, doctors and teachers, who help during emergencies. Try to maintain daily routines and understand that your children may need frequent reassurance. Limit media exposure and encourage them to express their feelings through drawing and dramatic play.”
The Federal Emergency Management Agency recommends all families stock disaster kits with enough food, water, clothing and personal supplies to last at least three days. The kit should include provisions for basic medical needs, such as a first aid kit and prescription medicines. In the case of required evacuations, FEMA recommends having enough supplies to live in a shelter for two weeks.
Families with very young children should have formula, baby food, diapers, diaper wipes and appropriate medicines, as well as activities to keep children busy. Take photos of your children and a photo of you with your children in case you get separated in a shelter or in an emergency situation. A child should know his or her full name, phone number and address.
“If a family needs to stay with friends or relatives or in a shelter or motel for an extended period of time, parents can ease their children’s stress by packing favorite books, comfort items such as blankets or stuffed animals, and small toys,” Tanksley said. “Drawing materials allow children to express their emotions by creating artwork that illustrates their fears and frustrations. This gives parents an additional way to learn how their children are dealing with the situation.”
Dee Berry, a board-certified associate behavior analyst and co-owner of Assessing Educational Competencies, recommended extra planning for families with special-needs children. For example, some children, especially those with autism spectrum disorders, may react negatively to large evacuation shelters because of the number of people, inconsistent routines, unfamiliar foods and noise levels.
“What we learned from Hurricane Katrina and what we’re seeing again in Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee and Mississippi following the tornadoes is that many shelters cannot meet the needs of children and adults with autism or severe cognitive disabilities,” Berry said. “They need more appropriate settings with routines that meet their needs for consistency.”
Parents of children with autism spectrum disorders should tell shelter staff about potential behavior issues ahead of time. Parents can also provide kids with a picture chart of shelter rules. For some of the most severely affected individuals, a private setting that can provide a truly consistent environment may be the only way to evacuate successfully.
“Preparation is the key,” Berry said. “Pack familiar items, visual schedules and when possible, familiar foods. Notify shelter personnel regarding the special needs and behaviors associated with your child’s disability. Be patient with shelter staff and with your child.”
By planning in advance, families can ensure they have the information and supplies they need to evacuate safely. For more information on preparing for a disaster, visit FEMA’s “Are You Ready?” website at http://www.fema.gov/region-iii-are-you-ready.
Contact: Dr. Rita Tanksley, (662) 773-3091