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Earthquake 101 for families and children

Posted 5/22/2008

Families need to be prepared for Northern Nevada’s swarm of quakes

Panic. Fear. Chaos.

Earthquakes are one of the most feared natural disasters and with the recent trend of tremblers in Northern Nevada, many residents hold their breath and wonder if the "big one" is going to hit.

Parents are needed most when children feel uneasy by the shakes even though many earthquakes have been recorded in the 2.0 and 3.0 ranges. With the possibility of a large-scale earthquake hitting the area, families need to be well prepared, especially when helping children cope with the potential disaster.

"Anxiety and worry are common, especially in this swarm of earthquakes," said Bill Evans, University of Nevada Cooperative Extension youth development specialist. "The everyday small earthquake reminders and the media coverage can heighten the anxiety."

Young children, especially, can be affected during earthquakes because of their sense of vulnerability, lack of understanding and difficulty in communicating how they feel. These behavioral changes are common in children who have been through a disaster, and some of the symptoms could last for weeks or months. Except for rare cases, most children do not develop serious or permanent psychological problems.

"The biggest thing for parents to realize is it’s OK to talk about earthquakes without it being more fearful" Evans said. "Keep messages simple and answer questions in an age-appropriate way with a focus on what to do in case an earthquake occurs: how to call 911 or what your family escape plan is, and knowing that many people will be available to help if a disaster does occur. That’s going to be key. When you practice what to do in advance, everyone feels more prepared and are better at taking care of themselves."

Parents can help their children handle these situations and be more prepared if a larger quake happens. They need to keep their children informed, support them emotionally and make time to comfort and reassure them. Talking about problems has proven to be effective because young children are frightened and have difficulty understanding complex situations.

"Parents and families should have plans on evacuation, how to call for help if needed and to know what drop, cover and hold on means," Evans said. "There’s been some controversy about the ’Triangle of life’ procedure (drop, cover, and hold on), but most of the experts have not endorsed this - stick with drop, cover, and hold on."

Another important method is maintaining routines or rituals of comfort like dinnertime at the kitchen table, a bedtime story, an afternoon nap or a favorite teddy at bedtime. Maintaining routines can provide children with a sense of security. Crisis activity and relocation, however, can cause severe stress because of disruption of the familiar.

"When people are anxious or fearful, familiar structure reduces these feelings," Evans said about keeping routines. "You want to continue with your daily family routine. You just need to make sure you’re prepared and you shouldn’t feel like it’s going to increase fear when you talk about it. It’s going to help some of their anxiety and worry."

Other ways to calm children and help them during earthquake situations include giving them something productive to do that is age appropriate, showing them models of courage, determination, coping and support, taking time to calm yourself and seeking professional support if needed.

"That’s going to happen. Kids are really affected by their environment," Evans said about parents needing to be role models. "If parents can be calm it’s going to enhance that behavior in children as well."

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the American Red Cross provide a number of fact sheets to help families prepare for disasters, like earthquakes and wildfires. Fact sheets provide background and preparedness information on disasters and information for pet and livestock owners. They are available at www.fema.gov and www.redcross.org.

Don’t be the first to act last. Children depend on their parents for help and support, especially during a swarm of earthquakes.

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