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September 20, 2017
Posted in: Parenting Concerns
The Clay Center Team
When it comes to scary events, such as terror acts or natural disasters, our mission at the MGH Clay Center has always been to help parents appreciate the impact of kids seeing images on the screen and hearing about events that are potentially traumatic. In past blogs, we have focused on looking at these incidents from a developmental perspective, and guiding parents in ways that may help them and assist them personally as well as helping their kids.
While natural disasters, like terrorist attacks, are rare and terrifying, they raise additional concerns for our children. Fears of random destructive natural forces may reinforce the notion that the world is an unsafe place and instill concerns of loss and helplessness.
In the last month, the devastation of hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria has topped the headlines and media outlets. The earthquake in Mexico has shocked the world. These events have shaken countless individuals, families, and communities, including our children.
Julie Kaplow, PhD, Director of the Trauma and Grief Center at Texas Children’s Hospital, provides a thoughtful guide for parents in helping children feel secure in the face of hurricanes and other storms. We appreciate being able to share her guidance as a trusted resource through the Clay Center.
Hurricanes are generally predictable, which allows more time to prepare. This period of time can be stressful for kids as they watch their caregivers (often frantically) stock up on food, water, batteries, etc. The anxiety caregivers often experience during this time can be contagious, so it is helpful for them to monitor their own coping strategies when attempting to help their children. Children will frequently turn to the adults in their lives for information, and younger children in particular may have questions about what is happening around them. Children do best when caregivers appear calm and are able to answer their questions in a simple and honest way. The most important message caregivers can convey is that they will be there to protect their children and keep them safe.
Children will have a wide variety of reactions to a hurricane and its aftermath based on their age, developmental stage and any experience they may have had with storms in the past, in addition to any secondary adversities they may face in the aftermath (e.g., damage to home, loss of belongings, etc.). Typical reactions may include:
Children will have many questions during and after a hurricane and will often repeat questions even if they’ve already been answered. Although this can feel frustrating to caregivers, it can help to remember this is their way of attempting to make sense of a scary and unpredictable situation. On the other hand, some children or adolescents may not want to talk about the events and may prefer to distract themselves.
One way of alleviating children’s anxiety is to make it clear that caregivers are open to answering any questions they may have, and even if they don’t have an immediate answer, they will do their best to give them as much information as possible. It is often best to allow children to take the lead in having these discussions. Often they can only absorb small pieces of information at a time and may feel overwhelmed if provided with too much information at once. For example, a caregiver might say, “I know things may seem confusing or upsetting right now. What questions do you have for me that I might be able to answer?” Here are some additional tips for caregivers to help facilitate children’s adjustment after a storm or hurricane: