It’s only natural for people of all ages to feel scared, anxious and nervous when anticipating the arrival of a hurricane or any severe storm. With hurricane season around the corner, now is as good a time as any to talk to your family and help prepare them for what they might expect.
“Natural disasters disrupt our lives in various and significant ways, so we should not wait until there is an approaching hurricane to discuss these feelings and safety plans with children,” says Dr. Sandy De Silva, an experienced psychologist and Executive Director of Family Centre in Bermuda. “We should have these important conversations as hurricane season approaches so that everyone’s feelings can be validated and children can be reassured that the adults’ job is to keep them safe and protected.”
She says that taking the initiative to open lines of communication with children about their feelings and concerns before they bring it up sends a message that the topic is okay to talk about with adults. Here are some things to help these conversations be as successful and productive as possible.
Have a discussion. No matter how old your children may be, you’ll want to talk to them about hurricanes in an age-appropriate way. Let them know what to expect when a hurricane hits and whether you will be staying put or evacuating. Talk to them about what each option might be like. Discuss plans for pets and other relatives so they know everyone will be safe. Let them know there are emergency personnel on the island whose job it is to help during hurricanes. Write down emergency phone numbers and tape it up together. No matter where your discussion leads, use language they’ll understand. Reassure them you will keep them safe.
Be on the same page with your partner. “The adults in the family should agree on hurricane preparation and safety planning so that everyone is on the same page before discussing these things with children,” says Dr. De Silva. She notes that this will help reduce anxiety and smooth the execution of the safety plans in the case of an emergency. “Going through a hurricane or severe storm is nerve-wrecking enough, so it is important to not add any more stress to the situation as a result of parents or adults disagreeing and not being on the same page about how to keep everyone safe.”
Act confident. If you’re upset or anxious, your kids will be too. You’ll want to put your family’s minds at ease, so be sure that you and your partner stay calm and sound confident. Project your voice, smile, offer hugs and be aware of your body language and what that might be saying to your family. Twitching, twiddling and fidgeting can tell them you’re anxious, even if you’re not, so make sure you’re thinking about what your body might be saying, even by accident.
Involve your family. Give kids ways to help with the preparations and planning. This will give them a sense of control and help them feel involved. They can choose which favourite toys, activities, books and clothes they want to put aside in case of a power outage or evacuation. If they’re older, they can help collect canned foods from the kitchen and gather flashlights and batteries for your family’s emergency kit.
Share feelings. Are your kids feeling anxious, scared or worried? Encourage them to talk about their feelings and cry if they need to. Be there to comfort, hold and reassure them. If they’re not ready to talk, let them know you are here whenever they feel comfortable. Maybe there are other relatives they might want to reach out to at various times. Keep those family phone numbers posted in a convenient location so your family knows they can call grandma or grandpa if they want to talk, too.
Limit exposure to the news. Listening to the news can be scary. Whether you’re a child or an adult, some of it can make everyone feel anxious or overwhelmed—especially as it relates to a storm’s approach. Try to limit your family’s exposure to news programming. Read it on your phone to stay informed or watch on tv after they’ve gone to bed. It’s good to keep everyone informed, of course, but often it’s better if it’s filtered through a parent’s loving lens.
Keep an eye on your family afterward. After a bad storm sweeps through, your family might experience some post-traumatic stress. “A key factor in a child’s recovery from any traumatic event is support from parents, teachers, and other caring adults in their lives,” says Dr. De Silva. “Most children are resilient and will return to normal functioning following a hurricane or other natural disaster. If a child’s distress continues to interfere with their normal daily functioning after a few weeks, it may be time to seek professional help.” She says that signs of emotional distress could include significant disturbances to sleeping and/or eating patterns; excessive clinging to others for security; re-experiencing the traumatic event through nightmares, recollections or play; emotional numbing and withdrawal; or persistent fears about other disasters. “If your child is experiencing these symptoms, seek the assistance of a school counsellor or other mental health professional.” Family Centre, for example, offers counselling services free of charge for families. Look for services like that and others, as there are many supports available in Bermuda.