ORLANDO, Fla. – As we move into the 2023 Atlantic hurricane season, it’s easy to see why you may be feeling anxious. After Hurricanes Ian and Nicole battered Florida last year, many families are still dealing with the impacts of catastrophic flooding and damage.
And for children, it can be difficult to process those feelings.
News 6 anchor and meteorologist Julie Broughton spoke with Dr. Elie Hessel, a pediatric psychologist with Nemours Children’s Health, about how to prepare your kids for hurricane season.
Hessel told News 6 she’s definitely seen the mental health impacts of the 2022 storm season in her practice.
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“We’ve had some families who, even this far in this location, have had family members elsewhere in Florida who had been affected to the point where their homes were destroyed, or they weren’t able to go back to their homes. And even here in this area, we certainly saw a lot of flooding. And so there are certainly patients and families who have very real, very recent experiences of what the negative impacts of a hurricane can be like,” Hessel said.
She added that some of the concerns relating to the storm forecast that had been more theoretical for children last time around now feel a lot more real and scary.
“Some of them might remember some of the things they heard during the storm. The loud wind and the sounds of branches snapping,” Hessel said. “I remember being without power for a little while. And particularly for those kids who have more direct personal experience or direct experience from loved ones, I think it’s going to be a little bit more scary this time. "
Broughton asked Hessel what the best approach is when talking to children about the season, to which she replied every kid and every family is a bit different.
“There’s not always one right answer, but I know that you’re in Florida, we have times of the year where we can buy hurricane care, tax-free, for example,” she said. “And so that’s a great opportunity to talk with our kids about, ‘Hey, right now, everything’s safe, there’s nothing to worry about, but sometimes storms happen. And so we’re going to buy these batteries, and we’re going to get this kind of radio,’ or whatever it is that your family gets. So that when something happens, or if something happens, we’re safe, and we’re ready, not making a big deal out of it, not talking about all the scary things that could happen.”
Essentially, the Nemours psychologist said, preparation is the thing to focus on. Hessel went on to say it’s good to point out to children that when storms do start popping up, there will be forecasts days ahead of time that give them a bit more information so they can further prepare.
“It’s always good to start by asking kids what they know,” Hessel added. “Sometimes we underestimate how much kids know. They might have heard a lot more at school, or they might have heard something on the radio that you weren’t aware they were listening to. And so finding out what they know, and what they’re worried about, can really help us know how best to respond.”
Hessel recommended, if a storm is approaching, involving your child in age-appropriate preparations, like creating hurricane kits. And she said to be honest about how you’re feeling, too.
“First and foremost, it’s really important when kids are saying that they’re scared, oftentimes, as parents, we want our kids not to have any negative feelings ever, but they have them. And so it’s important when they do for us to say not, ‘Don’t be scared,’ but instead, ‘It’s OK to be scared. I’m scared sometimes too.’”
She said helping your children “know what to do with that scary feeling” is helpful.
“So some of that is something like, ‘When I feel scared, these are the things I do to make myself feel better. I take a deep breath, or I remind myself of all of the plans that we have in case there’s a hurricane,’” Hessel said.
And Hessel said it’s OK to admit to your child that you don’t have all the answers.
“I think after a really big hurricane, like we had last time, sometimes kids love to ask that question of, ‘Why? Why did this happen? Why did this storm come? Why did it hit us? Why did our house flood?’ Those types of questions. And I think as adults, we often, we feel really required to give an answer to the why,” she said. “But sometimes there isn’t an answer to a why or there isn’t a good answer that will make kids feel better. And so don’t feel like you have to explain why a hurricane came or why it hit our house or anything like that. Instead, it’s OK to just say, ‘You know what, I don’t know why this happened, but I’m really glad that our family is OK. I’m really glad that you’re here with me and instead kind of shift away from that why.”
Hessel said to consider seeking help from a mental health professional if your child’s worry continues to surface, even when we aren’t dealing with an imminent storm.
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