Giving Kids a Hand When Disaster Strikes

Mark Kennedy Shriver talks about creating safe spaces in a scary world


Hurricane Dolly was no Katrina, but that doesn't mean it wasn't traumatic for children—even if they live 1,000 miles away from South Texas. CNN endlessly flashed photos of Dolly's sinister spiral, along with repeated shots of flooded houses and cars. I found the nonstop coverage disturbing—and I'm old enough not to be afraid of thunder.

So it was my good luck that Mark Kennedy Shriver, vice president of Save the Children, stopped by U.S. News yesterday. This nonprofit works to help the 2.5 million poor children in rural areas, and aided in the recovery effort after Katrina. When workers discovered that many shelters had no place for children to play, and that parents struggled to keep kids safe and entertained at the same time they were trying to figure out the future, the group started deploying staff to help families cope and now provides Red Cross shelters with toy-filled "Safe Space" kits. Shriver, speaking as a parent of three young kids, says: "If you're in a rec center with three kids and there's nothing for those kids to do, your head's going to explode. Those are emotional scars that are going to last for years."

Shriver's also concerned about the long-term effects of disaster on children, even if they're just seeing disaster coverage on TV. His own children were "totally wigged out" over the Hurricane Katrina coverage. Turning the TV off was a big help, he says. Shriver offers these other Save the Children tips for helping children cope with disaster, whether on TV or close to home:

1. Hug your children often and comfort them. Give them extra time and attention in the days to come.

2. Listen to children carefully, and give them a chance to talk about what happened.

3. Watch for changes in your children's behavior. If your child continues to display disruptions in eating, sleeping, or daily activities, of if you feel concerned about his or her behavior, seek help from a mental health professional.

4. Be patient and sympathetic about lingering fears.

5. Use positive behavior and language around your children.

6. Take care of yourself and do healthy things to relax.

7. Help your children to return to school, normal activities, and routines.

8. Encourage your children to volunteer and help others.

That last one is particularly apt coming from Shriver—he's continuing his parents' lifelong tradition of public service. (His mother, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, founded the Special Olympics, and his dad, Sargent Shriver, founded Head Start, Vista, and the Job Corps. I've met them both and am happy to report that Mark also inherited his parents' charm and warmth.) These days, it seems like another disaster is always just around the corner. I hope I'll never be looking for that tub of children's toys in a Red Cross shelter, but I'm relieved to know it's there.