By Lisa Boushy
Natural disasters such as hurricanes are traumatic events for all of us, but they can be especially frightening for children who can suffer great emotional distress if not given the proper tools or preparation to cope with an impending storm.
Susie Bodden, a chartered educational psychologist at Transformations Ltd. as well as executive leader of the Special Needs Foundation of Cayman, says there are a number of ways parents can help prepare their children should a hurricane strike.
“It is important that young children are given reassurance that the family, home and belongings are cared for and protected. For older children, having a sense of responsibility can help them manage any anxiety in a productive way.
“Contributing actively in age-appropriate ways allows youngsters to feel a sense of competence and confidence as they cope with the unexpected,” she says. The following are some suggestions Bodden offers for preparing children for a forthcoming hurricane:
- Answer children’s questions with simple but honest responses that are appropriate for their level of understanding.
- Show children your hurricane supplies.
- Include them in your preparations – shopping for supplies and helping prepare snacks and treats for during the storm.
- Show children the “safe room” in your home.
- Let children know what you will bring into the safe room and help them to decide what they will bring as well, such as a favorite doll or toy, comfort items, board games, etc.
- Educate children about safety issues inside your home (fire hazards) and outdoors (downed wires, sharp debris, standing water).
“I also recommend that during hurricane season, you could share stories about how well you have coped through storms in the past. Focus on how the family is prepared for this year’s possibilities,” she says.
Other ways you can involve older children is by looking at a hurricane tracking map together, which can be found online. Ensure you stock up on games, puzzles, arts and crafts, or other forms of entertainment for children of all ages, to keep their minds busy; headphones also come in handy so they can listen to something calming or pleasant in order to block out the sound of the storm.
Bodden says there are some common reactions in children after a hurricane.
- Feelings of fear and anxiety about the safety of themselves and others (including pets).
- Increased fears and worries about separation from family members.
- Clinginess in young children.
- Increased anxiety over future hurricane warnings.
- Prolonged focus on the hurricane (e.g., talking repeatedly about it – young children may “play” the event out.)
- Anxiety about leaving family members, i.e. going to school.
Changes in behavior can also occur, such as decreased concentration and attention; increased irritability; increased activity level; withdrawal; aggression; increased physical complaints such as headaches and stomach aches; increased sensitivity to sounds; changes in sleep and appetite; regressive behaviors in young children e.g., babytalk or bedwetting; and increased chance of highrisk behaviors in adolescents e.g., drinking, substance abuse, self-injurious behaviors.
If parents or children experience troublesome levels of anxiety, Bodden suggests contacting a psychologist or therapist with experience in hurricane preparedness and trauma recovery for helpful support and further coping tools.
“Children’s reactions to the hurricane and its aftermath are strongly influenced by how their parents and caregivers cope during and after the storm. They often turn to these adults for information, comfort and help,” she says.
So this hurricane season take the time to educate your children and try to lead by example by staying calm and levelheaded.
Educational psychologist Susie Bodden suggests parents read with their children about coping with hurricanes. She recommends a few books as examples:
- “Clifford and the Big Storm”, by Norman Bridwell
- “Hurricane!” by Jonathan Landom
- “Wild Weather: Hurricanes!” (Hello Reader), by Lorraine Jean Hoppin;
- “The Magic School Bus Inside a Hurricane”, by Joanna Cole.