I hope you are all doing well and that those of you with children are getting readjusted smoothly to school. With Hurricane Irma fast approaching on the heals of Hurricane Harvey, I have seen a rise in anxiety in children about damage and negative consequences of these storms on family and loved ones. I thought now would be an appropriate tome to share some special considerations for families on managing anxiety around natural disasters whether you are in the path of the impending weather or have loved ones who are there. I hope this short post will be helpful and, as always, I appreciate your feedback!
Do your own “self-work”
Know your triggers!
Are you anxious too?
Listening is Better than Talking!
Use eye contact to let them know you are listening
Maintain a sense of normalcy
Treat the conversation as important
Validate fears when they pause speaking
Save your questions for after they finish sharing their anxious thoughts and worries.
Be patient, breathe, and move slowly through each part of the anxiety
Give your child as much time as they need
Don’t use euphuisms (ex. nuclear hurricane)
Explain the abstract in simple concrete terms
Ask them “What would make you feel safe?”
Ask the child to come up with solutions
Offer facts that will help them neutralize their anxiety
Help them understand what is meant by "freak storm"; "nuclear hurricane"; "monster tornado" etc. Remember that children often think in concrete and literal terms so the use of these labels in the media may intensify the fear.
Know Your Child
Children are excellent observers but poor interpreters
Check-in what they know
Don’t assume or give details only if they want to know more
If the child has had anxiety in the past then anticipate its reemergence
Your child has valid fears, concerns and opinions, even if you do not agree with them
Be your child’s expert provide any facts they need
Be your child’s best resource to give them a sense of safety and security
Use your child’s interests to help explain abstract concepts and keep them engaged and understanding.
Part of knowing your child is also about knowing what is more likely to make them anxious. Spend time with your child discussing what are the most likely consequences of the impending weather event e.g. power outages, fallen trees, damage to property.
Take time to discuss fears around more unlikely, yet often more scary possible outcomes such as death of a loved one or loss of the home or injury.
Educate your child and yourself! Learn about the type of natural disaster that you are worried about. Often, the science behind the event, such as a hurricane or tornado, can be fascinating and help alleviate fear.
Take care to normalize the severe weather event (even thought they range in severity) as a part of life that comes with living in the area you or your concerned family lives in. Be sure to emphasize the preparation that goes into keeping safe and learning from past events to help improve safety precautions.
One of the most helpful things you can do, as a parent, is to take time to focus on what IS going right at the time of the event. As odd as it sounds, paying attention to the efforts being made to help people prepare to withstand the natural disaster is reassuring.
Make plans with family members in the impacted area to have a time to check-in on safety before, during (if possible), and after the event.
If possible, be sure to let your child know that in the event that a family member(s) lose contact they will do their best to get in touch as soon as possible. Help your child understand likely reasons why a relative may lose contact during a severe weather event.
If you live in the impacted area, make sure you have a clear plan of action to stay safe or get to a safe zone. Are emergency supplies ready and do you know your emergency contacts?
Don't forget the pets! Having a safety plan for your beloved pets is as important as a plan for your family. Also, for family in affected areas, it can be helpful to have them reassure your child (if you live in an unaffected area) that their pets are safe and will stay so.
Educate your children about the first responders who would be involved in responding to the weather event and, if possible, take them to open houses hosted by responders so they can familiarize themselves.
Limit screen time to the television, computer, other electronic devices, and social media around the weather event.
Saying a prayer or doing a concrete good deed helps alleviate the feeling of helplessness.
Special Attention for Children with Disabilities
Monitor non-verbal individuals for reactions, behavioral changes and other symptoms that can signal anxiety.
Non-verbal and verbal individuals can benefit from short, concrete explanations that can be repeated again and again.
A child with special needs may need more physical comfort to compensate for their lack of verbal ability.
Try to maintain routine as much as possible if necessary than allow deviations like sleeping in Mom’s room but pre-plan a designated time of two-nights and provide a concrete chart or way for child to grasp it.