Weathering Storms: When the Unexpected Becomes Real

Most adults have an emotional response to a natural disaster like Hurricane Sandy, even if we’re just watching news coverage from afar. For kids, hearing about any natural disaster—or witnessing one—can be extremely frightening and stressful. Even if they live far from the affected area, kids need to know that they are safe and things usually do return to normal. Whether you are a parent or an educator, you can help kids manage their concerns.

disaster supply kit, free clip artJust as schools have fire drills, students can have a plan ready so they know how to react to storms and other events. In some parts of the country, people have tornado drills, and others have earthquake procedures to follow. Some families keep snowstorm kits in cars. Whatever natural dangers exist in your area, making sure kids know what to do at home and at school goes a long way toward easing their anxiety.

Before a storm: Letting kids know that a severe storm is coming and that you as a parent or a teacher have a plan for dealing with it is important. Whether experiencing a fast-moving storm or a hurricane that might take hours to pass by, let kids know what to expect. Talk about where to find shelter, what to expect with respect to wind, sounds, water, and power, and who will take care of them. If you have the opportunity before the storm hits, stock up on medicines and nonperishable foods—and don’t forget pet food, if appropriate.

Photo by Les Stone, American Red Cross

During a storm or natural disaster: Discuss how long it may last and how you will know when it is over and safe to be out and about again. Let kids know what to expect when they go back outside and look at the damage.

Long-term power outages: Living without power can present challenges at home and at school. It’s a good idea to have familiar foods that do not require refrigeration, a stash of charged batteries for flashlights and entertainment devices, and a crank- or battery-operated radio available. Blankets or coats for warmth may be needed, as well as diapers or clothing changes for very small children. Board games, crayons, paper, and books are great, but so is storytelling!

In the aftermath: Involving kids in the recovery process can help them see that they have the personal power to recover, or to help others recover. The cleanup and repair after a natural disaster can take a long time. There may be downed power lines, standing water, debris, and broken glass. When kids live in a recovery area, they can work with their classmates and families on age-appropriate and safe cleanup projects. Students who are concerned about the damage but live outside its scope can help by making donations of clothing, food, books, toys, or even by helping to raise money.

Hurricane Sandy 2012 Les Stone/American Red Cross

If you’re upset or scared, try not to let kids see you get hysterical. Kids are more likely to stay calm if the adults around them are calm, too. If you’re looking to the TV for updates, remember that kids may not be able to process all that they see there. Try to keep TV to a minimum. Let kids talk to you about their fears, and as much as possible, keep to your usual routines.

Clear communication—about safety, what to expect, and how people work to bring a more normal sense of routine after a natural disaster—goes a long way toward helping kids understand their feelings and take control of their own reactions.

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Suggested Resources
The Washington Post: On Parenting blog article “Making Sense of Hurricane Sandy.”
The New York Times: Education article Teaching Hurricane Sandy: Ideas and Resources, and their N.Y./Regional article Cooped Up at Home, Energetic Children and Their Anxious Parents.
The Center for Disease Control has excellent resources for assessing food and water safety during power outages.
The Brian Lehrer WNYC radio program has an audio clip of Sesame Street’s Elmo discussing his experience during Hurricane Sandy.
WNYC has a resource list for volunteers and donors looking to help with Hurricane Sandy recovery efforts.
The American Red Cross has links to many ways people can help with post-disaster recovery efforts.

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About Mary Stennes Wilbourn

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