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Cuddles and time: how to reassure small children after an earthquake

Early childhood teacher and mother of two Donna Eden shares her advice for keeping kids calm and comforted during the quakes.

We are all feeling pretty shaken by last night’s quake and aftershocks, especially our little folk who don’t have the same understanding of events that we do. Schools, kindergartens, and ECE centres are closed and lots of us are worried about friends and whānau and staying glued to the news and social media.

Try to stay as calm as you can during aftershocks as it helps your littlies stay calm too. Feel free to share the news that nobody likes earthquakes, and it is normal to feel a bit frightened by them.

The next step is reassurance. How do we comfort our little people? They may have some weird and wonderful theories about what has happened (our three year old was convinced it was his sister’s tummy rumbling). As a mum and as an ECE teacher I would suggest: reassure and be honest, gentle and kind (though to be fair I say that about almost everything).

They might need extra support. Make sure that you are giving them the cuddles and time that they need. If it makes you all feel better to stay close, then do! If they need to spend a night or two in your bed to make you all sleep better, then do it! (As long as it is safe – remember to use pods to co-sleep safely with infants). Our family are currently all curled up together on the sofa, snuggling and watching Night at the Museum.

Often sleep and toileting regress when children are stressed so stay calm and gentle and know that it is normal and will pass. Children who are usually reliable may have toileting accidents if they are distracted and not picking up on their usual ‘needing to go cues’. It should return to normal fairly quickly. Our little one is a bit frightened of aftershocks so needs company on the way to and from the toilet. This is totally reasonable so I will be trekking the hallway with him for a day or two. It might mean extra night wakes and a little more reassurance at bedtime – again this is normal and will pass.

They will be full of questions and may be frightened and anxious. They will also pick up on the fear and anxiety of adults around them. Kids are really perceptive. They can figure out what is happening, so don’t feel that you have to try and hide your feelings. Just talk about it with them in a way that isn’t scary. It’s okay to admit you are a bit jumpy because you don’t like earthquakes!

Some of our little folks have experienced some really scary sights and sounds, or have had to evacuate from their homes. Keep them informed about what is happening and why. As much as you can, provide clear factual answers and explanations. There is support for children who have experienced trauma and someone at your evacuation point will help you know how to access them.

It’s important not to overload your kids with information that they might not need or want. But if they do have questions, they may ask again and again so just keep answering. They are trying to work it all out in their heads so they might need that key information repeated a number of times. They aren’t trying to wind you up, just to understand!

It is okay to tell them if there is something you don’t know. You might be able to find out together. If they ask what will happen if there is another earthquake, tell them. Talk about drop, cover, and hold so they have some knowledge and power about what to do. And of course reassure them that you will keep them safe!

Don’t make promises you can’t keep – they need to trust you so don’t tell them there won’t be another one.

If they ask at bedtime what will happen if there is an earthquake in the night tell them that you will come and check on them, that you will help them get under the doorway or drop, cover, and hold, and that they are safe and warm and you are here.

If they ask about what happens if there is an earthquake at school or kindy reassure them the same way: to drop, cover, and hold and that the teachers will look after them and keep them safe and that you will come and get them.

Be mindful of what they are seeing and hearing on social media, television and radio. They will be busy making ‘working theories’ so make sure the information they are receiving is the kind you would want them to have. If it’s scary for us to see or hear then it will probably be scary for them. Feel free to turn off or restrict media to just adults.

Over the next few days keep routines as normal as possible. There is a lot of comfort in routine and predictability.

There are some great resources for parents about dealing with trauma at the Skylight Trust and the Ministry of Health.

Take care of each other folks, check on your neighbours and whānau, and take care of those little peeps.

See also: 5 tips to help your child after an earthquake

Donna Eden has been an ECE teacher for 20 years. She currently works with infants and toddlers and thinks we could all learn a lot from them – especially about speaking out when you don’t agree. She is a lesbian, feminist, badass and mama of two awesome children with the best sweetheart ever. She works hard to practice kindness, fairness and mindfulness every day.


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