NEWS

How To Talk to Your Child About Natural Disasters

Residents of a neighborhood flooded by the rising Myakka River in the wake of Hurricane Ian wait with their children and pets on October 01, 2022 in North Port, Florida.

Win McNamee / Getty

Key Takeaways

  • Hurricane Ian has left a wake of destruction from Florida to North Carolina with many families displaced and lives lost.
  • Going through natural disasters or hearing about them can be scary for children.
  • When parents are mindful of how they talk to their kids about disasters, they can help them feel as safe and secure as possible.

Before Hurricane Ian swept through Florida, residents scrambled to prepare. Jenna, a stay-at-home mom to two young girls in the Tampa area, stocked up on water, batteries, and flashlights. As she and her husband lugged outdoor furniture and everything else from their yard into the house, their daughters became concerned.

"They wanted to know why we were bringing everything inside and filling the tub with water," Jenna says. "I told them there is a very big storm coming that we need to be ready for, but you don’t need to be afraid because we are safe."

Hurricane Ian, one of the strongest to ever hit the United States, is the first hurricane the family has seen since their older daughter was born five years ago. Ian destroyed homes and businesses and left almost 2 million people without power. At the time of publication, the death toll from Florida to North Carolina is nearing 70.

Jenna is planning to teach her girls more about hurricanes after this one. She hopes there aren't as many unknowns next time, particularly for her 5-year-old's sake, since she struggles with worry and anxiety.

"I realized I had to be very careful about preparing but not panicking since they look to me for security," Jenna says. "It was hard to stay calm while I knew the terrible possibility and results of a direct hit, but I tried my best to put my fears to the side for my children."

Natural disasters can be very scary to children. These catastrophic events cannot be controlled by adults nor can their exact paths be predicted. Kids feel at ease when they know what to expect and when they know their grown-ups can keep them safe. A natural disaster is essentially the opposite of that.

It's true that we can't stop hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, or other natural disasters. But we can take a few steps to make our kids feel as secure as possible.

Why Natural Disasters are Scary For Children (and Adults)

Natural disasters can strike fear into the hearts of anyone at any age. They have destructive power and we can't predict exactly what they'll do. "While we may know that they are coming, there is not a guarantee of what is going to happen, exactly when it will arrive, or where exactly it is going to be," says Anne Inwood, MS, LCSW, a clinical social worker who specializes in working with children and families.

Children do well when they know what is going to happen and since natural disasters are unpredictable, this makes them even scarier. "While natural disasters are inherently scary for both children and adults, the experience of a natural disaster can be much scarier and more overwhelming for young children, who lack the ability to verbalize and regulate their emotions," says Elanna Yalow, PhD, MBA, an educational psychologist, and chief academic officer at KinderCare.

You can't stop a disaster from happening and it is completely normal to be afraid. But you do have enormous influence over how your child will experience the disaster. You can help them understand and deal with their feelings and make them feel as safe as possible. Preparing ahead of time in case something happens will help you stay calm at the moment if it does happen.

How to Talk to Your Young Child About Natural Disasters

Little kids are still building their understanding of the world, so it's important to talk to them about natural disasters that they may be hearing about. Whether these disasters are happening far away or close to home, they need to know that you will keep them safe and that hurricanes and other natural disasters are rare.

Address Their Fears

Ask young kids what they are nervous about so that you can try to address their concerns. Validate any of their fears, big or small, and provide some sort of reassurance. For example, you might say that hurricanes can knock out the lights, but you have lots of flashlights and batteries ready so they won't be in the dark.

Be honest about what is happening to validate your child’s experiences but tell the truth at a level they can understand, and avoid sharing unnecessary details that may frighten them further.

ELANNA YALOW, PHD, MBA

"Be honest about what is happening to validate your child’s experiences but tell the truth at a level they can understand, and avoid sharing unnecessary details that may frighten them further," says Dr. Yalow.

Try not to brush off any concerns that make you feel nervous. If your child says they are scared of earthquakes or fires, you can tell them that we can't always stop those things from happening but we can make a plan to be as safe as possible should they happen.

Keep It Simple

Avoid technical language or long-winded explanations with little ones. You want to explain things as clearly and simply as possible.

"When talking to younger children, it is important to make sure that you are using language that children can understand," says Inwood. "When they do not understand what you are trying to help them understand, this can make children more nervous."

For example, in the case of a flood, you might say that sometimes it rains so much there is too much water on the ground and it can fill up people's houses. Or in the case of an earthquake, you might say that we live on great big pieces of land and there are other great big pieces of land that sometimes bump into each other, causing a big shake. You do not need to get into the details of plate tectonics.

Talk About the Helpers

Teaching young children about the different types of helpers that show up in times of disaster can be very reassuring. The idea that firefighters, paramedics, and other disaster service workers will be there to help in case of an emergency helps little kids feel safe and taken care of. The fact that people will come to their aid takes away some of the anxiety around the fact that something bad could happen.

Not all helpers wear badges either. "If your neighbor stopped by to check on your family, you can validate your child’s experience, but emphasize the positive takeaway, by saying: 'That rain was scary earlier, but isn’t it wonderful that we live in such a caring community and have neighbors that will check on us during scary situations?'” says Dr. Yalow.

How to Talk to Older Children About Natural Disasters

Older children have a greater understanding of the possible implications of natural disaster. In some cases, this can cause more anxiety because they can imagine more possible scenarios.

Answer Questions

Generally, offering detailed information and explanation can help calm their fears. "[Older children] may want to know more about where the natural disaster is and the path that it is on," notes Inwood. "It is important to help them understand what they want to know and avoid hiding information."

Give age-appropriate explanations or even check books out from the library on types of natural disasters that may happen in your area. Encourage kids to ask questions and express their fears.

Tell Them Your Family Safety Plan

Create a family safety plan if you don't already have one in place, and share it with your child. Knowing your family meeting place or where the emergency food and water are stored can help them feel reassured about what they should do if disaster strikes.

Make a Plan for Your Family

There is no place on Earth that is free from potentially suffering some type of natural disaster. All families should have a disaster plan and emergency supplies at home. Exactly what this looks like may depend on your geographical location and the types of disasters that are likely to occur there.

Post emergency phone numbers at home and choose a meeting place that all members of your family can get to if they were in separate locations such as work or school. For many disasters, being in the basement is the safest place to be so make sure children know to go there. Have a plan for where to shelter if you need to leave home. Pets may need to be sheltered as well.

Prepare an emergency kit with supplies such as non-perishable food, water, medicines, a first aid kit, flashlights, batteries, and paper products. It's a good idea to have some activities or things you children can do to keep them occupied. "If they just have to wait with nothing to do, it's more likely that they will become more nervous," notes Inwood.

How Your Child Can Help Those Affected By Natural Disasters

If you are lucky enough not to have been affected by Hurricane Ian, you or your kids may wonder what you can do to help others. Getting involved and showing that you care teaches your children a valuable life lesson.

Donating to the American Red Cross helps on-the-ground emergency crews assist people who are trapped or injured. The Red Cross also sets up shelters for those who evacuate or become displaced. Children can get involved by raising money through fundraisers like bake sales. Make it more personal for kids by having them set up some educational materials like posters or booklets to pass out. They can talk to people about why help is needed and what the money will go towards.

Give to reputable organizations only to avoid scams. Other organizations to give to include The Salvation Army, Save the Children, and Direct Relief.

You can also donate supplies such as blankets, first aid supplies, clothing, or hygiene kits. That being said, always contact charitable agencies to ask what they need the most. Sometimes an overabundance of unnecessary supplies adds an extra burden rather than helping.

What This Means for You

Natural disasters are scary for kids and adults. We don't have much control over these events and they can be catastrophic. Your family may never be affected by a disaster, but your kids will certainly hear about them at some point. Help kids feel safe and secure by having open, honest conversations that are both informative and reassuring.

If you don't already have a disaster plan in place, start thinking about what your family might need if a disaster occurred. Prepare emergency supplies and create a meeting plan.

4 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. PBS. How to Help the Victims of Hurricane Ian in Florida.

  2. Associated Press. In Hurricane Ian's wake, dangers persist, worsen in parts

  3. Preparing for a Hurricane or Other Tropical Storm. Centers on Disease Control and Prevention.

  4. Emergency Kit Checklist for Kids and Families. Centers on Disease Control and Prevention.

By Elisa Cinelli
Elisa is a well-known parenting writer who is passionate about providing research-based content to help parents make the best decisions for their families. She has written for well-known sites including POPSUGAR and Scary Mommy, among others.