Helping Children Cope with Hurricanes and other Disasters

McKenzie’s attitude and comment after Hurricane Wilma still cause me to smile at her version of “If life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” McKenzie loves critters, any size, shape, or color. This eight-year-old wanna-be-veterinarian looked at the fallen tree and said with anticipation, “When the tree comes out, I’m going to hunt worms!” Out of the hurricane’s damage and inconvenience of no electric or hot meals, she saw the advantage of seeming disaster . . . collecting worms from the exposed earth. Good things, aside from worms, can come out of disaster, such as increased communication and appreciation for the bonds of family and friends.

When a child returns to school, they’ll have the same demands of study, homework, tests and personalities; but they’ll also have the additional stress of their disaster experience. Your child’s behavior may change immediately, next week, or even next month as a result of the trauma they’ve experienced. Each child is unique though, and some may never get upset enough to show distress signals. The following are stress symptoms you may encounter:

(1) Behavior changes not usually observed. A shy child may become loud and aggressive, while an outgoing child may become quiet and fearful.

(2) Your child may express fear of recurring storms.

(3) Your child may revert to bedwetting and thumb sucking.

(4) Your child may become very clingy and not want to be away from your side.

(5) A child may act afraid of loud noises, particularly wind and rain.

(6) The child may fear sleeping alone at night, being alone in their own room, or sleeping without a night light.

One of the best ways parents can help their children cope with stress is to invite them to tell you how they feel and actively listen and respond. Take some time apart with your child to prompt their sharing. Consider the following activities to involve your child:

1. A trip to the park or a walk around the block is an ideal opportunity to talk and listen to your child.

2. Getting in touch with nature, whether hunting worms or tossing a ball together, helps parents and children alike lessen the effects of stress. If distance and circumstances prevent a day apart, consider taking your boxed lunch to the backyard for a picnic; or lying on a blanket beneath the stars.

3. You can assist your child in creating and sharing pictures or stories about the recent events.

4. Spend extra time with them at bedtime, using the opportunity to talk and comfort them.

Your openness to their questions and increased one-on-one time can prepare them to transition back to school and normalcy. As much as possible, maintain a regular schedule. As you establish order out of disorder in the days ahead, may you find your upturned lives rich in what is sometimes taken for granted . . . each other; family, friends and neighbors.

Further parenting information related to the aftermath of a hurricane or disaster information can be found at the following online websites: