Q: There has been a lot of dramatic weather in our area lately and my kids are concerned about that. How do we prepare for a flood or a hurricane, and what should we do next?
A: After a hurricane or flood from other causes, families face different challenges, but there are several steps you can take to help protect and support your children during these times.
If your community is hit by a hurricane, prepare. Make a disaster-needs list and keep extra food, water, cash, and medicine in a large bag or backpack that you can grab if you have to flee. Secure your home (lock windows and store patio furniture and other items outdoors) to reduce storm damage. Some storms are just too dangerous to shelter in place, so evacuate if authorities tell you to.
If possible, do not return to your home after a storm until basic amenities are restored. It is difficult to care for children if there is no running water or electricity, or if the sewage system is not working. Hospitals, doctors’ surgeries and pharmacies may be closed or offer limited services. Supermarkets and restaurants may also be closed.
Make sure your home and neighborhood are safe before bringing children home. Children and adolescents are not allowed to participate in cleanups. Floodwater can contain dangerous chemicals and water can be contaminated with sewage and germs, which can infect cuts or wounds.
Follow the CDC tips on how to prevent and safely clear mold growth. If you still have no power and need to run a generator, make sure you keep the generator outside and at least 20 feet from your house.
Be careful as damaged structures and other debris can have sharp edges and points that can injure children and adults. There may be animals or spiders hidden in the rubble. Keep in mind that kids do better with routine and structure. If they are unable to return to school or daycare, establish routines around the house, such as a set meal and bedtime. Try to limit the time you are separated from your children. If you must leave children in someone else’s care, let them know when you will return.
Talk to your kids about what’s going on and how they’re feeling. Choosing not to talk about what happened makes the event more terrifying for children. Silence suggests that what happened is too terrible to talk about. Start by asking your children what they have heard about the events. Ask them how they feel about what is happening and if they have any fears or concerns. Offer appropriate but fair reassurance. Remind children of the steps being taken to keep them safe and rebuild the community.
The amount of information useful to children depends on their age, developmental level, and typical coping style. In general, older children want and have more detailed information than younger children. Take cues from your kids about how much information to give. For kids of all ages, don’t give too much detail and don’t share graphics or emotional reporting, such as TV interviews with crying victims.
Don’t tell children not to worry. Help them learn how to deal with distressing feelings instead of pretending these feelings don’t exist or shouldn’t exist.
Look for changes in behavior that indicate that your child is having trouble coping. It is common for children to experience changes in sleep or eating, such as loss of appetite or overeating. They may struggle with fears or anxieties, including fear of going back to school, social withdrawal, sadness or depression, new hyperactivity, or physical complaints (such as headaches, stomachaches, or feeling tired).
In addition, future severe weather (or event birthdays) can remind children of the disaster, which can increase feelings of anxiety. If these reactions persist over time, become severe, or affect your children’s learning and social ability, contact your pediatrician or other professional.
dr. David Schonfeld is a developmental-behavioral pediatrician and director of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. dr. Scott Needle is a primary care pediatrician and the chief medical officer of Elica Health Centers in Sacramento, California. Both are members of the executive committee of the AAP Council on Children and Disasters. For more information, visit HealthyChildren.org, the AAP’s parent website.