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How to Talk to Children and Teens About Natural Disasters

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By any reasonable standard, the past year has been a doozy.

We used that special technical term because we’re all tired of writing and reading the word unprecedented.

Let’s leave the pandemic out of it for a moment – as a simple thought exercise – and look back at the events we typically think of when we say natural disaster. While the pandemic and politics wrestled for headline space, the year 2020 broke records in several other categories, too. Several events made big news but did not receive the attention they would have in any other year.

For example:

  • Wildfires:
    • In California, wildfires burned close to five million acres of land. That’s more than double the amount of land affected by the previous record season in 2018
    • In Colorado, wildfires burned over 200,000 acres of land during October, breaking the record set just two months earlier
  • Storms and Flooding
    • In August, a powerful storm called a derecho – a straight-line windstorm – damaged homes and crops across the Midwest. It affected areas of Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin. The storm left hundreds of thousands of people without power and destroyed homes, businesses, and a substantial amount of cropland. Authorities estimate damages of over eleven billion dollars.
    • Floods in Michigan broke dams and caused the evacuation of more than 10,000 people from their homes
  • Hurricanes
    • For the second time in history, authorities exhausted the alphabetical hurricane naming system. They began using the Greek alphabet to name storms
    • In September, authorities recorded five active storms in the Atlantic for the second time in history. Also, they reported the formation of three major storms on the same day – tying another record
    • Five tropical-grade storms made landfall in Louisiana – another record

That’s an eventful year – and we haven’t even mentioned the pandemic.

The Pandemic Effect

In an article published recently in National Geographic, psychologist Mindy Wallpe asserts that, for children and teens, the primary stressor of the coronavirus pandemic may compound the secondary emotional trauma of weather events like hurricanes, storms, and floods.

Young people often internalize the stress of an extreme weather event, even if the event doesn’t affect them in a direct, physical way, Wallpe observes. When they’re already operating in unfamiliar and relatively traumatic circumstances – i.e. the pandemic – seeing or hearing news about dangerous weather events can amount to our youth experiencing “trauma after trauma” on an internal level.

Many parents teach their kids fundamental relationship principles such as empathy and compassion. Kids and teens learn and understand how to act on these principles in their day-to-day lives. When a friend is hurting, they give hugs. When friends or family members argue, they learn to hear both sides and advocate for clear communication. But when they see homes burning or neighborhoods flooded by a hurricane, they’re often at a loss as to how to process what they see: there’s no one to hug and no way to resolve the problem through dialogue.

Children and teens alike may react to these events by becoming irritable, acting out in anger, withdrawing from friends and family, or displaying other uncharacteristic behaviors. Since this is uncharted territory for most parents and kids, Wallpe advises parents to watch out for any extreme changes in mood and take note of any significant deviation from the way their children typically navigate and respond to their immediate environment.

It’s important to understand that the cumulative effect of the pandemic and a year of record-breaking natural disasters affects two things that are critical to maintaining emotional and psychological balance: a sense of safety and a sense of consistency.

What Parents Can Do

Parents understand that for younger kids, it’s their job to establish both a sense of safety and a sense of consistency. Parents of teens need to understand that that job – at its most fundamental level – does not change when their kids enter adolescence. Teens may talk a tough, self-sufficient game. They may convince the adults in their lives that they’re “cool with it” and “doing fine.” They may say things like “I promise I’m okay.”

What parents need to watch for in school age kids and teens alike, however, is behavior.

If parents think their kids have internalized the stress of the past year, the best thing they can do is talk through things with them. The goal, according to Wallpe, is to “…provide your child with a secure and supportive environment so they can identify healthy ways to express their emotions.”

Here’s how to do that:

1. Assess Their Knowledge

Set aside a time to talk. The first objective is to learn what your kids know and understand about what’s going on. This goes for the pandemic as well as natural disasters. Find out the scope of what your child or children know or do not know about the events in question. Make notes of what they do and don’t understand, and address their knowledge and/or gaps in their knowledge in the second part of the conversation.

2. Neutralize The Language

Media uses words in headlines that are designed to lead to clicks. A hurricane “destroys.” A tornado “leaves a path of carnage.” Wildfires “ravage” entire towns. While all these words are accurate, they scare kids, and make teenagers uneasy. When you talk about these events with your kids, be sure to use language that’s not shocking or scary. For instance, “high winds damage property” is neutral, whereas “…tornado cleave a path of destruction” is not. Choose words that de-escalate, rather than escalate, the emotional content of the conversation.

3. Use Science and Facts

This applies to natural disasters as well as public health emergencies like the coronavirus pandemic. If a child displays emotional reactions to news stories about hurricanes, tornados, or wildfires, explain what these events are and how they happen. Do this with factual information delivered in a calm, even, and reassuring manner. The same goes for the pandemic: you can explain what a virus is and how it’s transmitted without using inflammatory language. This sets you up for establishing reasonable safety practices and encourages responsible behavior such as social distancing and wearing masks.

In addition to these three steps, it’s important to limit or restrict media exposure when it causes unnecessary stress. This is easier to accomplish with younger children than with teenagers, of course. With teens, your job – since it’s almost impossible to control every avenue through which they may receive information – is to double down on #3 above. Revise your teen’s knowledge with verifiable facts based on research and science.

In other words, where the pandemic is concerned, listen to and read anything made public the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). And where weather events are concerned, listen to and read anything made public by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).  We recommend these resources for a simple reason: they’re taxpayer funded and do not rely on advertising revenue to provide information.

Parents: Check Yourself, Too

If you’re the parent of a young child or teenager, the chances are you put the health and wellbeing of your children before your own. That’s admirable and necessary – at times. However, too much of that can backfire. If you compromise your emotional and psychological health to the extent that it impairs your ability to meet your work and family responsibilities, then you undermine your initial goal, which is to provide an environment that feels safe, supportive, and consistent for your children. You can make sure this doesn’t happen by monitoring yourself in the same way you dutifully monitor your children and teens.

If your behavior has changed, if you’re constantly irritable and angry, or if you display the tell-tale signs of depression, such as withdrawing from family and friends or losing interest in activities you previously enjoyed – then we recommend you seek support from a friend or a mental health professional. You’ll be a more effective parent when your emotionally and psychologically healthy.

One last thing: recognizing and seeking support when you need it is a sign of strength and wisdom. If the cumulative stress of 2020 is getting to you, then please do take care of yourself sooner rather than later.

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