By Julie Kaplow, Ph.D., A.B.P.P., director of the Trauma and Grief Center at Texas Children’s Hospital
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:
- Concerns and worries about the safety of others, including caregivers, siblings, pets
- Clinging behavior/fear of separation
- Increased activity level
- Difficulty concentrating
- Angry outbursts, irritability or aggression
- Physical complaints, such as headaches or stomach pain
- Changes in school performance
- Preoccupation with storms or hurricanes (talking about it a lot or playing it out with toys)
- Increased sensitivity/fear surrounding thunder, wind, rain, etc.
- Changes in sleep patterns or behavior (including wanting to sleep with caregivers)
- Changes in appetite
- Lack of interest in activities they used to enjoy
- Teenagers may demonstrate some of the behaviors listed above. They may also engage in more risk-taking behaviors as a means of coping including drinking alcohol, using substances or engaging in dangerous activities.
How caregivers can meet their children’s needs
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 Harvey and other storms or hurricanes:
- Although easier said than done, try to remain calm. Children are extremely tuned into caregivers’ own reactions during stressful times, and they will often model their own behavior/coping based on what they observe.
- Try to monitor conversations you are having with other adults regarding the storms, flooding, damage, etc. Children are often listening in and can misinterpret what they hear, leading to further anxiety/concerns.
- Limit and/or supervise media exposure as much as possible. Often the media will show disturbing images and descriptions of the hurricane and its damage, which can again increase children’s anxiety.
- Reassure children that they will be safe and protected. This may need to be repeated frequently even after the storms pass, particularly in the case of secondary adversities (e.g., flooding).
- Keep it simple. When answering questions about the hurricane and/or its aftermath it’s best to provide straightforward, factual information and let your child/teen ask any follow-up questions they may have.
- As difficult as this may be, try to stick to regular routines as much as possible (e.g., eating dinner at the same time, same bedtime routine, etc.). This can help to provide children with a sense of order, predictability and control during a time that may feel out of control. Children feel more secure with structure and familiar routine.
- Help to keep comforting objects in close proximity (e.g., a stuffed animal or blanket).
- If you do lose power, it can help children to talk about community recovery and reassure them that people are working hard to restore the electricity, phones, water, etc.
- You may need to provide some extra support at bedtime, as this is most often the time when younger children will express fear/anxiety. Reading stories they enjoy and spending extra time cuddling can help.
- The hurricane/storms may have disrupted daily activities, and a loss of power may cause boredom. You can help kids by coming up with alternative activities such as board games, card games, arts and crafts, etc. Here is a list of activities that don’t require any supplies.
- Remain optimistic. Even in the most stressful and difficult situation, your hopeful outlook will go a long way toward helping your children feel confident and secure that things will be OK.
- Take care of yourself. As a parent or caregiver, you are a key part of helping your child to cope in adaptive ways. Getting the support you need and making sure you are staying healthy will help ensure you are ready and able to help your child.
How to know when to seek help for your child
If children are continuing to have the reactions described above for more than six weeks after the hurricane, caregivers may wish to consult a mental health professional for an evaluation. Our Trauma and Grief Center at Texas Children’s Hospital, provides evidence-based assessments and interventions to youth between the ages of 7 and 17 who may be experiencing adverse reactions in response to potentially traumatic events. To schedule an appointment, please contact the intake coordinator at 832-822-3829.
Our Trauma and Grief Center is a designated Treatment and Services Adaptation Center of the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN). Much of this information comes from resources provided by the NCTSN.