Parenting Through a Natural Disaster


It’s not something we like to think about, but sometimes we as parents will have to navigate how to parent our children through a natural disaster. As you probably know, our home was in the Woolsey fire here in LA. We were evacuated for a month before getting back into our home.

We were driving the kids through an area completely demolished and burnt by the fire, and the reality of it hit all of us really hard. We had never really seen the power of fire in real life, which is so different than seeing it on TV and hearing about it from our friends that have been through fires. The feeling of seeing it in real life and having it come so close to us is hard to describe. In all of this, we’re not only navigating this as adults, but as a family. We’ve been parenting our children through it all since they’ve been along for the ride.

Throughout this whole process, I was so thankful for the practical things we had done to prepare for it. My wife, Lauren, had prepared everything for a disaster before there was ever a fire near us. She’s done a really good job of navigating the world of disaster preparedness without being afraid. If you’ve ever looked into it, you know most websites and resources are so full of fear and anxiety. Lauren has done a really good job getting things ready but refusing to live in fear.

Here are some practical tips we had prepared way beforehand “just in case” that were super helpful navigating this disaster and freed us up to parent well through it:

  1. Bins with Necessities: Lauren had a bunch of valuables in bins so they’d be easy to grab. She also had a bin of things the children would need, like toys. We also had LifeStraws so we’d be able to drink water if purified water wasn’t available, practical things like that. They were in bins so they were easy to grab quickly in case we got the order to evacuate.

  2. Extra Gas: We didn’t have power for a few days. Lauren had gas stocked up so we could run our generator and keep the freezer going, as well as have power for everything we had to do for the clean-up process.

  3. Water: Lauren has a lot of water stocked up--just in case. We ended up not needing it, but in situations like this it’s common for water to be contaminated and to not be able to get access to it.

  4. Video of Your House: We actually learned this from a friend in Redding from the Carr fire. Go through your house and take a video of everything so you have a record of it in case you need it for insurance.

All of these super practical things were incredibly helpful for parenting in a natural disaster. When you’re prepared, it puts you in a much better place to stay calm, which will help your children stay calm as well. When we woke up our kids and stuck them in our car (along with loading up eight animals between our car and one horse trailer) we were so ready, we could stay calm.

These are the key things we did to parent well during this natural disaster that can be helpful for you:

  1. We tried to keep the situation really light, but without trying to be too fun or not honest about what was going on. They saw the fire coming while we were driving away, so we weren’t trying to pretend like everything was good or ok, but we didn’t want it to be super heavy either. We said, “Hey guys, time to get up. We’re going to go on an adventure. We don’t know exactly what’s going to happen, but we need to hurry and go.” It’s not fun to move from place to place and navigate everything going on. Keeping it as an adventure made it ok for the kids.

  2. Be aware if you’re in a natural disaster that your kids are going to have emotions with all of it, and so are you. Part way through our journey, I realized I wasn’t handling it as well as I thought I was. I needed to have some alone time to process my emotions and everything that was going on. That same day, our nanny had come in to help with the kids so we could get some stuff done, and she noticed that the older kids probably needed to be separated. They were kind of just grumpy with each other. Everyone’s emotions were not in the best spot. So we made a plan. The nanny took the kids, Lauren took care of the animals, and I spent some time alone to process everything.

  3. One tool we often mention for any situation is how children need about 10 minutes of undivided attention each day. After I had my alone time so I could be in a good place, I took the kids, one at a time, for a few hours to get ice cream, see how they’re doing, and process a little bit with them. It gave them a spot to talk about what’s going on and how they’re doing, as well as gave them the undivided attention they needed.

  4. If at all possible, send your kids with someone so they can get away from it all. We sent the older children to Tennessee so they could be with their grandparents for Thanksgiving and we could stay here with Aero, have a simple Thanksgiving, clean the house, and take care of all the crazy stuff that goes with cleaning up after a natural disaster. It was so incredibly helpful! If you have people who can take your kids for a little bit of time, even if just for the day, and get them away from it all and have fun, do it. We could tell they were doing so much better after the time away. Their school was closed for 2 weeks and we were moving from place to place, some of the time in just a one bedroom hotel room, so the time away and space was good for everyone.

  5. Cancel whatever you need to. I cancelled a lot of stuff just so I could be with my family. I could make sure I was processing and doing ok, and it enabled me to check in with my wife and kids and make sure they were doing ok as well, and enabled us to take the time needed to process through it.

  6. Let other people help you. I tried to do a bunch of stuff all by myself, but there was a church that wanted to help us. They came up and helped do a ton of work around our house. I didn’t have to do it all by myself, and we got it done so fast. Plus, we got to connect and hang out which was really good for all of us.

  7. Get back to normal as you can. After canceling a bunch of stuff, I also had to go through a process of getting things back on my schedule and returning to normal. I had to feel it out, but adding things back on my plate was actually helpful to make things feel normal again. It was a balance to leave enough room to deal with the disaster, while adding things back in to get back to normal.

This is the last thing I want to leave you with when it comes to parenting through a natural disaster:

8. Be aware of things that you go to for comfort. It depends on who you are, and what you used to go to for comfort, but whatever you go to in comfort in a natural disaster will have an even stronger pull for you. For some people it’s alcohol, others TV, and others turn to some kind of substance, etc. It’s really important to go to God in these situations. You are going to need comfort in a natural disaster. Your kids are going to need comfort. It’s important that when we’re parenting through a natural disaster, we make sure we are going to God for comfort and help our children see us go to God. They’ll need our help to go to God and us for comfort. We can’t just turn on the TV and watch stuff forever just trying to get our minds off of everything and comforting ourselves. What we go to for comfort in these times is a model for our children teaching them to go to those things for comfort. Just a note, in the middle of this natural disaster, our children watched way more TV than ever before in their entire lives—it can be a helpful tool! But we don’t want to rely on it for comfort.

We’re really blessed and fortunate to still have our house and our things, even though it took us a month to get back in our home. We know many people have it much worse than us and lost everything. While we hope you never need these tips, it can make a world of difference to be prepared and know how to navigate difficult emotional circumstances with our children in these times.

ParentingSeth Dahl