To discuss or not discuss: Helping children prepare for hazards

It’s National Hurricane Preparedness Week so we’re sharing tips to keep everyone safe. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration forecasts we’re in for a near-normal or below-normal hurricane season this year. Below are some tips to help even the littlest ones in your family prepare for hurricane season.

National preparedness week

Written by Elaine Specht.

There are varying opinions to the age-old question, “How much information do you give your children about a possible or pending emergency situation.” Think about how you approach “heavy” topics with your children. Do you follow the philosophy that you should withhold information, so you don’t frighten a child until they are forced to face it, or do you share information with them, so they have some advance knowledge?

Building a disaster kit is a good way to get children in your family involved in preparing for hurricanes. NOAA illustration.

Building a disaster kit is a good way to get children in your family involved in preparing for hurricanes. NOAA illustration.

There is no “one size fits all” answer, but many agree that some form of conversation should begin at an early age, tailoring the information shared to an individual child’s age and personality and adjusting over time. Anita Gurian, Ph.D., clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at the Child Study Center, NYU School of Medicine, teaches, “If you discuss ‘what if’ scenarios in a calm, age-appropriate manner, you strengthen your child’s ability to face the world with confidence and self-assurance.”

Ultimately, you are the best judge of what information your children can and should receive and what the best approach is for your family. To offer some personal perspective on this complex issue, Coast Guard ombudsman, mom and hurricane survivor, Sedonia Cheatham shares her story:

As a native New Orleanian, Cheatham remembers riding in a bus with her uncle when Hurricane Andrew blew through. At one point, driving through flooded streets, the bus filled with water. “It was terrifying. If my uncle hadn’t helped me swim to safety, I could have died that day,” she recalls.

Having that fearful experience as a child gave Cheatham hope-filled insight to help her three small children when Hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc in the south. At the time, Cheatham’s young family was stationed at Air Station Miami. She remembers how frightened her children were when they could hear the turmoil of the storm outside and when the power went out. She talked them through what was happening, calling on prior conversations they had shared about storms and reminding them that the storm would eventually stop.

Cheatham says she is open with her children about the possible dangers hurricane season may bring. She explained that children understand and hear more than adults think, and she believes hearing snippets of information through the media or other sources rather than their parents can be more traumatic.

As the 2014 hurricane season approaches, consider opening conversation with your children. Find out what they are thinking, and let that guide further discussion. NOAA illustration.

As the 2014 hurricane season approaches, consider opening conversation with your children. Find out what they are thinking, and let that guide further discussion. NOAA illustration.

Cheatham offers other Coasties these words of advice, “Kids’ imaginations are vast and uncontrolled. Sit on their level and lay it out in a calm and matter of fact manner. Tell the truth, and reassure them by finding something good, something positive in it.”

Following Katrina, Cheatham treated the experience of walking with her children, pulling a wagon to replenish food and supplies that had run out as an adventure. This helped her children understand they were capable of dealing with the realities of life.

As the 2014 hurricane season approaches, consider opening conversation with your children. Find out what they are thinking, and let that guide further discussion. Together, make an emergency plan so that everyone knows what to do, where to go and what to take in an emergency. Play games—a scavenger hunt is a fun way to have children take part in building an emergency supply kit with all the things you might need to survive for a minimum of three days, should power go out, roads close or you have to evacuate.

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