How to help children cope with the traumatic effects of a hurricane

By Bianca Barr Tunno, AccuWeather staff writer

In the aftermath of a hurricane or other large disaster, children are often angry, scared or worried, which are normal emotions for any person to feel. Experts say letting kids know it’s OK to have intense feelings about the situation is a great first step in helping them cope.

Hurricane Florence child rescue

Rescue team member Sgt. Nick Muhar, from the North Carolina National Guard 1/120th battalion, carries a young child as the rising floodwaters from Hurricane Florence threatened his home in New Bern, N.C., on Friday, Sept. 14, 2018. (AP Photo/Chris Seward)

When adults help children express their emotions immediately after disaster then get them back to their routines, it creates a daily structure and expectation, according to Sarah Thompson, director of U.S. Emergencies with Save the Children.

“Disasters can uproot so much of a child’s life. The sooner they can get back to school, childcare or get back to playing sports is really important because that’s what’s normal to them,” said Thompson in a Facebook Live interview with AccuWeather. “It puts them back in contact with caring adults and peers...and it gives them a schedule where they know what comes next.”

She says children will feel like they have more control. It also makes them feel like the disaster hasn’t taken everything away from them.

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Different personalities, different experiences

In the post-disaster environment, each child will react in a unique way, and some reactions will vary by the child’s age.

“You can never assume that a child is traumatized by an event,” Thompson said. “You can experience a traumatic event without being traumatized, but it’s important that we provide support for kids during and after a disaster so that they can cope with the event.”

children and hurricanes infogram

Healing can start at home

Thompson offered a list of resources to help children cope after a disaster hits home.

1. Use yourself: Think about what has moved you through previous difficult experiences. If you are a parent, identify your own coping mechanisms and share them with your child. Make sure you are practicing self-care.

2. Use community resources: Find faith-based communities that offer group support or that might have access to licensed counselors or other mental health professional networks in your area.

3. Use national programs: Immediate crisis counseling is available when you call the Disaster Distress Helpline at 1-800-985-5990. This 24/7 resource is sponsored by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Also, the National Child Traumatic Stress Network has a host of resources and programs available for children of all ages.

“It really is a community effort to help ensure our kids are safe," Thompson said. "When our kids are safe, in general, our community is safer."

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