How To Help A Child Who Has Hurricane Anxiety?

Helping to Alleviate Your Child’s Fears

Shandra Valenzuela knows hurricane season will inevitably stir up not just broken tree limbs and loose debris in her yard but the fears of her oldest son, Stephen, 11. “My oldest son is extremely anxious,” says Valenzuela, who lives in Tampa, Fla. “He won’t watch the weather channel. If the weather is on he leaves the room.”

While the family, including father, Jose, and children Jack, 1, and Julia, 7, has never been in a home struck by an intense hurricane, they have lost electricity during hurricane season. Last year, August brought Hurricane Irene, followed by Katrina and Rita in September and then Wilma in October. “I was worried about him, but I found if we spent time together he was better off,” Valenzuela says.

Young Masters of Disaster

Valenzuela made an effort to listen to her son’s concerns and let him be part of the hurricane preparation. “They know they are being heard,” she says. “I would ask him what foods would you like to have. If he knows the radio is sitting there and the batteries are there and we have the food he likes and his Gameboy is charged, he has a hand in it and feels better about it.”

Even when her electricity went out for 36 hours straight, the family was able to make the best out of an uncomfortable situation. “We sat around and played board games and did stuff we did not usually do,” she says.

Heidi Taylor, the senior associate of preparedness with the American Red Cross in Washington, D.C., says parents may want to plan for fun activities to do if they are not in an evacuation zone but need to hunker down and weather the storm at home.

Taylor suggests parents visit and view the Masters of Disaster section, which includes lesson plans for teachers and information for families. “There are lots of things families can do together when the power goes out such as board games, spending time together,” she says. “There is an opportunity to spend time with the children and, as a family, just do some fun things. Use that time to spend together.”

Taylor says children may become frightened during hurricane season because they feel helpless and don’t understand what’s going on. “Parents can be good role models for safety,” she says. “When local authorities are saying it’s time to evacuate, the best thing to do is to evacuate in a timely manner.”

Taylor says that riding a storm out when authorities have called for an evacuation may be uncomfortable for your child. Children may also become nervous if they evacuate with friends or other relatives, but their parents or siblings stay behind. “They know they are going to safety, but if someone in their family is not going with them it can cause a lot of fear,” she says.

Taylor says parents should involve children in their preparedness plan. She suggests talking ahead of time about what they will do, how they will get information and where they will go. “Also, include children in getting supplies ready,” she says. “Share as much information with children about what will happen and what to expect. Take them shopping, help them assemble the supply kits, have them pack their own backpacks, things that are ready to go so they are ready in case a hurricane does come their way.”

Dealing With the Aftermath

Following a significant storm, try to involve your child in age-appropriate activities. While they should not be around debris and glass, they may help in the recovery in small ways.

Taylor says children do not always talk about their feelings when they are upset. Don’t assume your child is not afraid if they keep quiet. “If they are not talking about things, parents might think they are not upset,” she says. “We know that’s not always the case. Sometimes, children don’t talk about their fears following a disaster because they don’t want to upset their parents. If parents can take a proactive approach in bringing those things up in conversation, they will have a better understanding of how their child is dealing with it.”

Turning Back the Clock

Some people say they will be more prepared for future hurricanes after having been through disasters in the past.

Kimbel Burt, a parent liaison at Ben Franklin Senior High School, a charter school rebuilt after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, says she will be more prepared next time. “The year before last, we were pretty new to here and it was my first big hurricane,” Burt says. “We started to go to Houston. It took me eight hours to get to Baton Rouge from here.”

Burt says she was tired of driving and called her father, who gave her the number of a friend from college. “I called him up at 3 in the morning and said who I was and who my daddy was,” she says. “He said, ‘I know your dad.’ I said, ‘Can I come stay with you? I’m really tired of driving.’ He did not know me from Adam. He said, ‘Sure.'”

People who have young children may want to plan to find friends or relatives who can give them temporary lodging. “With Katrina, we weren’t real prepared either,” says Burt, who has two children. “We just went with work people. Next time I’m going to have it all set up. People need to know where they are going to go and be prepared for that instead of being surprised each time.”

Burt says 60 per cent of the students at Ben Franklin are not in their original homes. Students and faculty attend lectures on stress. According to Burt, it’s essential to find a sense of normalcy again after a major disaster. “A lot of parents still don’t live with their kids,” she says. “Their kids are living with other people just to go to this school. This to them is normalcy. Fifty percent of our staff lost everything. For them to come back here, that was normalcy. They did not have to think about it. These kids, all they have to do is think about what they are studying.”

Ryan Wee, 17, a senior at Ben Franklin, says his family of four, including sister Kirsten, 14, and parents Beth and Jim, live in an apartment after their home was flooded under more than nine feet of water. Wee says his family spent an entire day trying to board up their house and then evacuated. “I had evacuated a few times before,” he says. “It never hit. I’d spend the whole day boarding up the house and come home. I thought it was kind of a pain.”

Wee says most young people feel helpless when they hear about a hurricane. “I think a lot of kids who had to go through it are pretty worried,” he says. “My sister was freaked out about it. We had to leave our rabbit behind. He was 10 years old. He died in the flood. That got to her. We lost just about everything in the house.”

Wee says some of his friends did not evacuate. “The biggest problem was people who could not leave,” he says. “A friend of mine, a coach at one of the local schools here, had to be air-lifted off his house with his two little girls. He could not leave. He did not have the means at the time. I know he got out safe.”

Finally, the cliché about saving money for a rainy day takes on a new meaning during hurricane season. Make sure you put aside a small amount of money throughout the year for hurricane season, so your child does not have the added stress of having to worry about staying with strangers, not having enough food or being trapped in a dangerous place during a mandatory evacuation.

Storm Alert: Tips for Calming Fears

  • Help your child identify a safe room in the home for hurricanes and tornadoes. Post the names and phone numbers of people to call in case of emergency, including 911.
  • Decide who will keep your pets or where they will go in case you need to evacuate.
  • Every year, include your child in a trip to the grocery store for nonperishable food supplies and water for hurricane season.
  • Print a disaster supply kit list from the National Hurricane Center. Let your child help you gather those supplies.
  • On the day of a hurricane, please help your child stick to their daily routine.
  • Let your child know what the family will be doing next, so they are prepared for each stage, such as preparation, evacuation or staying in a safe room and recovery.
  • Please encourage your children to memorize their family name, address and phone number. If they are not old enough to remember, have them carry a card that lists emergency information.

Following an emergency, keep your family together and give your children chores they can handle to help them recover.

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