How to Help Kids Make Sense of Hurricanes

A pediatrician who has devoted his career to helping families handle tough situations offers advice about how to talk to your kids about hurricanes—no matter where you live.
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In the aftermath of a hurricane, parents may have serious problems to solve and not know the best ways to help their children cope. And no matter where kids live, they may be have been frightened by scenes of flooding and evacuations. For reassuring advice, we spoke to Parents advisor Irwin Redlener, M.D., director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University and cofounder (with singer Paul Simon) of the Children’s Health Fund—which brings doctors to America’s most vulnerable children and provides long-term support after disasters that affect children. Here’s what all parents should know.

What are some of the challenges that children face after such a destructive hurricane?  

Large-scale disasters, such as we’ve recently experienced with Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, can be terrifying for anyone unfortunate enough to be caught in their destructive paths. And that is even true for far less dramatic emergencies than we experienced in Texas and Florida. Even though adults experience anxiety, uncertainty, and fear in such situations, the impact on children is often far more intense and long-lasting.

Of course, it’s not surprising that children old enough to be aware of an unfolding crisis would be feeling anxious and afraid. Loved ones may have been injured or worse. Family members may have been separated, and unable to get in touch with one another. Families may have had to evacuate their homes on short notice, leaving possessions or even pets at home. All of this is extremely distressing to everyone, especially children who may have little understanding of what’s really going on. What’s most important is for you to stay as calm as possible in front of your children—even when you’re feeling anxious yourself. Children take their cues from us, and even very young children can internalize their parents’ fear.

What lessons did you learn from the Children’s Health Fund’s involvement after Hurricane Katrina about the needs of children who are recovering from this kind of trauma?

We followed hundreds of children who were affected by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita over several years. Many of them had persistent psychological problems and prolonged academic problems. Families experienced extended uncertainty in terms of when and where they would find permanent housing. Long periods of no school or multiple moves from one community to another are very difficult for most children to handle.

Keep in mind that sleep problems, hyperactivity, acting out, increased aggression, irritability and other unusual behaviors are common. It’s also important to pay attention to a child who is unusually quiet or reserved, since those may be signs of depression. If you see any changes like these in your child, focus on being reassuring, staying close and available, and keeping your routines as predictable as possible. If these issues persist, consider seeking the advice of health professional.

How will these disasters affect children’s experience in school this year?

Just as we saw in past hurricanes or other large disasters, this school year may be disrupted and inconsistent. The psychological stress from everything children have experienced can affect their performance in school. If access to school is erratic or unsettled, try to touch base with a sympathetic teacher in your child’s current school, and ask what you can do. Perhaps there is a curriculum that you’d be able to follow at home. Read with or to younger children and develop a reading list for older kids. You can also get grade-appropriate workbooks that are widely available in stores and online. Most children love these activities.

The hurricanes have impacted a diverse range of families, but how are children in families with limited financial resources impacted in particular?

Children living with adversities, including inadequate nutrition and limited access to health care prior to the hurricane, were affected much more by the storm—and were at more risk—than children living in families with more resources. In Texas, one in four children live in poverty. And in Houston, more than 40 percent of children live in households earning less than the federal poverty level. Many rural communities are not only poor and medically underserved, they are also isolated, making restoration of basic services, rebuilding medical clinics and opening schools even more difficult. Hurricane Irma barreled into Florida with more impact on the west coast than the east. Lower income communities in South Florida were badly hit.

Many families were reluctant to leave their homes and worried about loss of property—and very concerned about their ability to handle living expenses in whatever community would serve as a temporary relocation site. Florida also experienced massive loss of electrical power, more so than Texas. This is a dangerous situation for many residents, especially those with certain medical conditions. In addition, schools and stores would be closed, creating real burdens for families.

Children of all ages will be living with the memory of this terrifying experience. What can parents do now to help their children be resilient?

It would be difficult to overstate the important role that parents play in protecting their children from the consequences of persistent stress and uncertainty. Good parenting is a critical buffer, a protective shield for children who are anxious and traumatized by what’s going on around them. What this means depends on the age and developmental stage of your child, as well as his or her particular and unique temperament. But the key point is that you have an essential role in assuring a rapid and healthy recovery from any disaster.

Toddlers who may not be aware of any details will certainly be aware of the fact that everything is suddenly changed. During the acute phases of a disaster, TV or radio will be intense, even if the words aren’t understood, and exposure to all of this should be eliminated or highly limited. Children need comfort, physical contact, and reassurance that everything will be okay. Soothing words go a long way: “Everything is going to be fine” and “We love you and we’ll always be here for you” and “Is there anything you’d like to talk about?” and “Let’s find something fun to do.”

Younger school age children may need the same kind of calm, soothing. Give them simple explanations for what is going on and minimal exposure to news coverage screens of any size. As we get into recovery, try to get back into a normal or new normal routine as rapidly as possible. This may include getting into a new school, as well as mealtimes, sleep, and so on.

Sometimes it’s best to bring up an issue that you suspect your child is thinking about, but he may blurt it right out: “When are we going home?” or “How long will we have to be here?” These are entirely reasonable questions that everyone—not just kids—are concerned about. Your answer should be simple and honest, like: “I’m not exactly sure when we’ll be able to go home or even find a new home. But we’re going to make the best of the situation here or wherever we are. And Mom and Dad will be doing everything we can to get us to a real home as soon as we possibly can.”

Older kids and adolescents will need a lot more clarity about what’s going on and an understanding of what their parents do and don’t know. Remember that just listening to a teen’s concerns is helpful and perceived as caring. For teens who are not at all talkative, which most aren’t under the best of circumstances, make sure they know you are there for them and available to answer any questions they might have. Being appropriately truthful is also important. Losing a teenager’s trust during a time of crisis is not good.

With many children, it may be difficult to find out what they are thinking or how anxious they may be. Feelings may be difficult to elicit and they may behave in negative ways. Patience and calmness should rule the day.

Finally, kids of any age should be reminded that “we are not alone” and there are many people who will be trying to help. You can let them know that caring neighbors, police and firefighters and many people from the government as well as our great volunteer organizations will all be trying to make sure everything will be okay.

Seeing the hurricanes on the news was scary for children all over the country. What’s the best way for parents to address their children’s fears about a future storm that could affect them?

Generally speaking, honesty is always best. Second best is not saying too much! Gauge your responses to specific questions to your child’s age and temperament, and try not to volunteer more information than seems necessary at the moment.

Try saying some version of this: “Sometimes bad things happen in places and to people even though they’ve done nothing wrong. But most of the time almost everybody is safe and doing what they usually do, like going to school, playing with friends and hanging out with their family. And that is exactly what we’re doing! So let’s read a book together (or it’s time for dinner, or let’s take the puppy for a walk).” You get the picture.

And remember, for young children, do everything you can to eliminate or minimize exposure to disaster images on television. That might be a good idea for you, too.

In his inspiring new book, The Future of Us: What the Dreams of Children Mean for Twenty-First Century America, Dr. Redlener shares more of his experiences caring for children, and solutions for helping all kids reach their potential. His friend Paul Simon calls him “an optimistic realist.”

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