In Southwest Florida, we are no strangers to natural disasters. We all know natural disasters like Hurricane Ian can have a major impact on our daily lives. What is often overlooked is the mental effects hurricanes can have in the short and long term on especially children. While the aftermath of such a devastating hurricane can be chaotic, it’s important to remember to talk to your child about what they are feeling and address any concerns they may have. As an experienced pediatric psychologist, here are my tips on how you can help your child cope after a natural disaster.
The first step in helping children is to take care of yourself. During this challenging time, seek support. Your emotional state affects your children. They draw their sense of security from you. You can share your feelings and coping skills. You can say, “This is hard right now and it was very scary, but we will all be okay.” “When I start feeling worried or scared, I listen to music or talk to someone.” Once you share your feelings, you will find that your children will express what they are feeling to you as they sense that you are strong enough to handle it.
You might talk about the different feelings you each had during the event and those being experienced now. It is important to let them be aware that all feelings are okay. Mention that sometimes people are not sure about what they are feeling.
Give children options for describing or acting out the event. Children and teens may benefit from the opportunity to draw out what happened. Younger children may play it out with toys. Others may journal their thoughts and experiences. The CDC offers free coloring books available in English and Spanish to help children feel safe. One specifically addresses coping after disasters and another one deals with preparing for a hurricane. https://www.cdc.gov/cpr/readywrigley
Your children may have questions about what happened. When you answer these questions, remember the age of your child and any developmental issues that they have. Some children need simpler and more concrete explanations. Older children and adolescents may have different questions about the event, and you can tailor those responses to their ability to understand.
One question that your children may bring up is, “Will this happen again?” It is best to answer honestly and say something like, “It can, but it is unlikely.” You can focus on that the family has a plan and that there will be help.
When possible, return to routines. Routines give children a sense of safety and normalcy. Have them return to school.
Expect changes in children’s behaviors during the first few weeks after the incident. Younger children may regress. Others may become angry or sad. Some may withdraw. There may be nightmares, increased fears and difficulty separating from parents. There may be more physical symptoms such as stomach or headaches.
If your child or adolescent has significant problems and their behavioral changes continue, seek help. A good starting point is their medical provider. They know behavioral health providers and can refer you or may have one working in their office. You can also check with the school. Schools may provide counseling services.
Remember children and teens are resilient, and with proper support they should do well. You can call 239.658.3000 to schedule an appointment with a Healthcare Network behavioral health provider like myself or visit HealthcareSWFL.org/Behavioral-Health to learn more.