Talking to kids about natural disasters

Wildfires, hurricanes, and other events can be upsetting to children. Here's how to help them deal.

When three-year-old August Collisson peeks outside the windows of his house in Los Angeles County, he can see that it’s raining. But it isn’t the puddle-jumping rain that he’s used to. It’s raining ash from a wildfire that’s been burning since March, 10 miles from his home.

Although August’s parents try to limit his exposure, they do have concerns of how he might be processing what he sees. “As we’re watching the news, people’s houses are burning down,” says his mother, Emily Collisson. “I don’t want him to see all that and be worried that it’s going to happen to us.”

Since the start of 2020, the American West has experienced intense wildfires that have destroyed nearly 5 million acres across California, Oregon, and other states. That’s in addition to a hurricane season that’s resulted in so many storms that the National Hurricane Center ran through the list of predetermined 2020 storm names and started using names from the Greek alphabet.

Children watching these events from afar likely have some understanding of the devastating impact on those affected directly. In a normal year, that might mean difficulty in emotionally processing these natural disasters. But according to psychologist Mindy Wallpe, stressors from dealing with the pandemic might make children even more sensitive to traumatic weather events—even if the event doesn’t directly affect them.

“Oftentimes for kids, a weather event they aren’t experiencing physically is internalized personally as a traumatic event,” she says. Pile that existing trauma on top of the emotional stress of the pandemic, and “it’s trauma after trauma.”

Although parents can’t control the weather, they can control how to navigate their kids’ concerns and feelings about natural disasters. Here’s advice from the experts on how to help them cope.

The time for talking

Just because a weather event is happening doesn’t necessarily mean parents need to bring it up. But they should watch for signs that kids might be struggling.

“Depending on the age of the child and where they’re getting their information, kids could be expressing fears of the unknown, anxiety about not feeling safe, or just general confusion to why these types of events are happening,” Wallpe says.

Children’s reactions to extreme weather events will be different depending on the child. Some, Wallpe says, may become more withdrawn, while others might behave more ambivalently. Other children may act out or express anger. The key is to watch for out-of-character behavior from a child. “The response could run a spectrum of emotions because they don’t have an outlet, and they don’t know how to process,” she says.

Luckily many kids will let you know when an extreme weather event is on their mind. “Kids might not understand why this event is still happening,” Wallpe says, referring to children’s expectations of storylines that are wrapped up quickly with happy endings. “So parents could get lots of ‘why’ questions.”

Family and marriage therapist Ashley Herndon says that parents should prepare some “what” questions of their own to help them understand how their kids are feeling—which will help them know how to respond. For instance: “What do you understand?” will target how much parents need to explain about the physical weather event. “What’s scary about this?” will help adults figure out if their child is worried about their own family’s safety, or something else.

“Get a better understanding of what their understanding is,” Herndon says. “Then build around that when you have a deeper conversation.”

She adds that straightforward speech is important for those deeper conversations. “Use language that isn’t scary, and dismiss fiction with facts,” she says. “Reframe what things mean to a child: ‘Hurricane’ should mean lots of rain and water, versus a storm that’s about to ‘rip through.’”

And though parents will want to reassure children, the conversation should still be honest. “Don’t tell them things you aren’t sure of,” like that everything will be OK, Herndon says. “Acknowledge that these events are happening, but that your family will stay safe and help take care of others.”

Above all, Wallpe says parents simply need to provide a safe space for children to express their feelings, and validate their kids’ children’s emotions. “It’s important to provide your child with a secure and supportive environment so that they can feel comfortable as they identify healthy ways to express their emotions,” she says.

Demystify fear with science

With their active imaginations, children often anthropomorphize what they don’t understand, attaching human qualities to things like animals and weather. Understanding the science behind the storms can help kids see them as simply something that happens naturally—not a villain to be overly feared.

“In cartoons, storm clouds look angry, while the sun is smiling,” Wallpe says. “Kids can personify these feelings to weather. Anytime we can be honest about the science, it will help kids process things better.”

Bryan Norcross, a hurricane specialist at WPLG in Miami who’s helped children and adults deal with the effects of Florida hurricanes, says he’s found that a clear understanding of weather can help calm a child’s concerns.

“Try to demystify what’s happening,” he says. Describe how the weather developed, and where it could strike and where it can’t. “I also describe what it would be like: How it would affect your ears, what it would sound like, the pulse.” (Here are some kid-friendly explainers on hurricanes, floods, and tornadoes.)

That said, too much science might just be background noise if a child is having an especially hard time coping with weather events. Wallpe recommends enlisting a teacher’s help to break down the information into two separate messages. “Perhaps parents address the emotional part, and teachers participate in the educational part,” she says.

Show how to help others

One big concern kids might be struggling with is how to deal with what’s happening to other children directly affected by the weather event.

Comfort younger children with the idea that adults are looking out for kids directly impacted by these weather events. “Communicate that kids in disastrous situations are receiving a lot of support from people who care about them,” Wallpe says. “Acknowledge that they’re probably scared, but that they have people to talk to—just like your child has you.”

She adds that helping others is another way children—both older and younger—can process the impact of traumatic weather events. “Reaching out and supporting those who are hurting helps give us purpose,” Wallpe says.

Work with your child in researching the specific needs of those affected by the disaster, and brainstorm ways you can contribute as a family, whether it’s writing letters, sending care packages, or holding virtual fundraisers.

Helping them take control

Even if a wildfire or hurricane isn’t likely to happen where you live, chances are some kind of weather event—a tornado, a blizzard, etc.—could occur. For children who might be having trouble processing faraway weather events, preparing for more local occurrences can help reestablish their sense of control and safety.

“When people take action, they feel better,” Norcross says. “Involve kids in preparedness, and show them that it’s a good plan they can be confident in.”

Giving kids preparation responsibility can be as simple as having them write out the safety plan and checking items off the list, or something more advanced like preparing the home for an extreme weather situation. (Here’s a toolkit from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to get kids started.)

“Teach kids what to do when extreme weather happens so they feel prepared, not scared,” says Lea Crager, FEMA Ready campaign director.

Limit their exposure

Keeping an eye on screen time can also help parents make sure kids aren’t being overexposed to upsetting news. “It’s a balancing act between providing enough education for kids to understand what they’re seeing versus seeing too much news and becoming absorbed into what they’re seeing,” Herndon says.

That might mean limiting social media (if your child is old enough to participate) or even banning videos that feature extreme weather. But it also means parents should be aware of what they themselves are consuming—and perhaps exposing to their children to.

“Kids seeing parents constantly checking on the weather” can overexpose a child to those upsetting events, Herndon says. She recommends that parents be mindful of their own media consumption so that it doesn’t unexpectedly stress out children.

“It’s always challenging to see our kids struggle to comprehend something traumatic such as a natural disaster,” Wallpe says. “It’s important to trust in your ability to know what they need in that moment, even if it’s not an area you’re totally familiar with. You know your child best.”

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