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How to Talk to Your Children About Hurricanes

How to Talk to Your Children About Hurricanes

Thank you to the Louisiana Children’s Museum for sharing this article with us after their experience with Hurricane Katrina.

Children look to their parents for guidance, support and the words that assure them that they and your family will be safe. Children also look to adults to measure how safe and predictable the world is around them. As parents living in the gulf/Atlantic region we must now begin to speak to our children about the realities of future hurricanes in a manner that balances reality with reassurance. Here are a few guidelines to help you speak to your children about storms:

Children under the Age of Three: Action more than words

  • Remember that even young babies have emotional and behavioral responses to their parents being anxious or depressed
  • Try to maintain normal routines and favorite activities
  • If evacuating be sure to bring familiar play toys, music and stuffed animals
  • Provide a calm, peaceful environment absent of adult conversations of crisis and disaster
  • Limit exposure to television coverage of the storm

Preschool-Age Children: All Hurricanes are Katrina/Irma

  • Many pre-school children now believe that all hurricanes that enter the gulf/Atlantic will cause the same devastation as Katrina/Irma. “Magical Thinking” at this age will cause children to mix fantasy with reality.
  • Listen and watch your child, children at this age express their feelings through play and words.
  • Do not brush off your child’s questions about the storm. If you do not answer them, they will make up their own answers that are inaccurate and far more catastrophic.
  • Do not dismiss your child’s feelings as being silly or unreasonable. If your child is afraid of your house being flooded, then talk to them about these feelings and the realities of flooding in your neighborhood
  • Limit exposure to television coverage of the storm, and adult conversations of crisis and disaster

School-Age Children: Comfort through Chores

  • School-Age children understand what is reality what kind of damage and disruption a hurricane can cause. Children at this age want and need to help when a storm is approaching.
  • Give your child a few small tasks to assist the family in preparing for a storm. This will give them a sense of control and comfort as well as promote a feeling of cohesiveness within the family.
  • Address your child’s questions and feelings in conversation that include your own thoughts and feelings. In measured amounts, sharing your worry about an approaching storm will send the message that being afraid is normal and “OK”
  • Limit exposure to television coverage of the storm, and adult conversations of crisis and disaster

Teenagers: Focus on Friends Because friends are so important to teenagers, they often bear the additional worry about their entire circle of friends when a storm approaches. To complicate their worry, the “ups and downs” of natural teenage moodiness can be more dramatic because they are learning how to manage their emotions at a time when their world appears out of their control

  • Reassure your teenager that their friends and their families will be safe from harm
  • Teenagers can easily be overwhelmed by their emotions. Give teenagers “alone time” so that they can organize their thoughts and emotions
  • Limit exposure to television coverage of the storm; include teenagers in adult conversations about the storm when appropriate

Identifying Stress Reactions in Your Child

For many young children the development of another hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico/Atlantic Ocean will bring back all the fear and worry they experienced during and after Hurricane Katrina/Irma. The following are common reactions and behaviors that parents need to look out for:

Children under the Age of Three:

  • Change in their personality that involves being clingy, irritable or tearful
  • Loss of energy or interest in play
  • Regression or change in daily routines of eating, sleeping or toileting

Preschool-Age Children:

  • Fear of being alone
  • Nightmares, fear of the dark
  • Clinginess
  • Changes in speech (baby talk or stuttering)
  • Defiance

School-Age Children:

  • Irritable, whiney
  • Aggression toward peers
  • School avoidance
  • Headaches or other physical complaints
  • Disturbances in sleeping or eating habits

Remember that reactions to traumatic events may appear immediately or after several days or even months. With adequate support from family and school most stress symptoms in children will begin to fade over time. If your child’s symptoms increase or remain over a long period of time, it is best to seek professional mental health services.

National Resources

National Child Traumatic Stress Network
National Institute of Mental Health