From freak or severe thunderstorms to flooding to fires, natural disasters affect us — and affect us hard. While South Florida residents know all too well the devastation and uncertainty that Mother Nature can bestow upon us, our kids are not nearly as well equipped to deal with such disasters and the resulting physical and emotional hardships they bring.
And now that hurricane season has begun, kids are hearing (and perhaps asking questions) about severe weather preparedness.
No one likes to hear that their world can literally be turned upside down; least of all a child who may be too young to understand it or a teen who’s seen the news and worries about what’s coming. So, how do you ease the fears of your children while also prepping them to be realistic about the forces of nature beyond your control? Here are some tips to help them — and you — be ready if and when Mother Nature unleashes her fury.
Encourage dialogue. Have them talk about their feelings and let them know it’s ok to be scared. Remind them, too, that it’s also ok if they don’t feel like chatting. Your job is simply to be there and let them know you’re doing everything in your power to keep them safe.
Make a plan. Discuss “what ifs” as a family, including what you need to do/pack in case of evacuation. This way, kids know what to expect and can act more quickly, calmly and efficiently. The good news: Hurricanes and other storms are generally predictable, giving you time to prepare.
Limit news exposure. News reports can be scary and misleading. Review with your kids what they’ve already seen and heard and talk about their concerns. The best rule of thumb: watch or listen to the news together and discuss the reality of your situation. Do your best to keep younger children away from additional media coverage as what they may hear on TV may sound scarier than it actually is.
Be honest. Share as much as they are developmentally able to handle. Consider the facts – they are the basis for your family plan, after all — but be mindful of what’s appropriate for them to hear. Encourage them to ask questions, and answer them in a straightforward and age-appropriate way. Don’t feel you have to have to have all the answers; but be sure to tell them you’ll do your best to give them as much information as possible.
Give them control. To avoid feelings of helplessness, let kids make choices such as what should go in the family disaster emergency kit. Give them a job such as deciding on snacks and canned goods to pack, getting flashlights ready and so on. Don’t forget to remind them to include a few comfort items such as a favorite stuffed animal, nonelectronic games, and toys in case of power outages.
Read books about the topic. Have books about facing and recovering from natural disasters in your child’s library at home to both teach them about the subject and also prepare them for what to expect.
Keep your stress and anxiety in check. Kids pick up your cues – and overhear your conversations – more than you think. If you’re calm and in control (or as in control as you can be), they will feel safer and calmer.
Involve them in recovery. Post- hurricane, encourage kids to participate in the clean-up and recovery in age-appropriate ways. This both instills feelings of control as well as a sense of community.
Note behavior changes. Natural disasters are scary and how your child is affected depends largely on their age and the severity of the situation. Younger children may suddenly turn clingy while older kids may show a decline in school performance. Seek professional help should any unusual behaviors persist.
Kathleen Dexter, M.S.W., is a contract administrator for The Children’s Trust, and a licensed clinical social worker with extensive experience in the design and implementation of child and family services programs. For more information, visit thechildrenstrust.org.