From hurricanes and tornadoes to earthquakes, mudslides and even extreme blizzards and flooding, families around the world have faced the trauma of natural disasters.
As Hurricane Florence batters the Carolinas, mothers living in and outside the storm’s route are facing questions about it from their children. HuffPost spoke to experts in child and teen psychiatry about the best ways to talk to kids about natural disasters.
Here are 10 things to keep in intellect when discussing natural disasters with children at different developmental stages. While the advice is geared toward families directly affected by a particular tragedy, many of these guidelines can apply to children outside the disaster zone, as well as those who have faced catastrophes in the past and may be feeling triggered by the latest news.
“Kids do best if their parents are calm and measured, ” Gene Beresin, Harvard Medical School psychiatry professor and executive director of the Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at Massachusetts General Hospital, told HuffPost. “Anxiety is contagious, and when parents are fearful or bent out of shape, kids of all ages are going to pick up on that.”
Beresin recommends parents follow the principle of an airplane oxygen mask: Secure your own mask before attending to the child next to you. In days of natural disasters, mothers should first soothe themselves down — perhaps by talking to a partner or friend — before trying to reassure their children. This will define a better tone for the conversation and allow them to focus on safety in a time of chaos.
Little kids have big ears, and if the mothers are talking about roofs blowing off or trees smashing into houses, they hear that stuff and worry about it. Gene Beresin, executive director, Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds
With younger children, mothers should also be mindful of the conversations they’re having in their children’s presence. “Little kids have big ears, and if the parents are talking about roofs blowing off or trees smashing into houses, they hear that stuff and worry about it, ” Beresin said.
Limit Media Exposure
Similarly, it’s best to be mindful of what children are picking up from media.
“Under these circumstances, adults and older children have a propensity to remain glued to the Tv or radio, ” Steven Berkowitz, co-chair of disaster and trauma issues at the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, told HuffPost. “But that’s not really helpful for young children because they don’t understand everything, and it simply becomes overwhelming.”
Turning off the Tv can help keep their worries at bay. Older kids and teens have steady access to information as they engage with social media, but Beresin suggested that parents watch the news with their teens so they can answer questions and talk to them about what’s happening.