Helping Children Cope with Hurricanes Katrina and Rita
Material available on the NICHD website can help parents talk to their children about natural disasters like the hurricanes that devastated the Gulf Coast this past summer.
Schmalfeldt: Since the end of August it's been nearly impossible to turn on a TV news channel and not see graphic and horrifying images of the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina. And then this past weekend, the Gulf Coast was assaulted by yet another powerful storm — Hurricane Rita. The images of destruction are difficult for even the most hardened news reporters to handle. So imagine what it must be like for children. After the 9-11 attacks on New York and Washington, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development produced a brochure giving parents some advice about talking to their kids and helping them get over the stress and fear generated by that horrific event. Doctor Lynne Haverkos is the Program Director for Behavioral Pediatrics and Health Promotion Research at NICHD. She says that much of what applied after 9-11 applies when talking to your children about natural disasters.
Haverkos: First I think what you have to do is recognize that children have a number of needs. They need to feel safe and they need to feel secure and protected and parents can provide that security — or at least the perception of a safe and secure environment through their presence and through developmentally-appropriate communication with their kids. You want to talk to kids on a level they're going to understand. Parents, community members — and I think health care providers have a role here too — can add to the sense of security that's necessary to reduce this normal fear and anxiety that comes with these natural disasters and acts of terrorism like September 11th. These are the people who need to understand that this fear an anxiety is normal, how to recognize it, some of the things they might see, signs of post-traumatic stress disorder when they become too persistent, too severe or last too long and indicate that they are more of a concern and may need treatment.
Schmalfeldt: Doctor Haverkos talked about some of the signals your kids may be sending that indicate they're having a tough time dealing with the after effects of the hurricanes.
Haverkos: Clinging behavior, fears that don't go away, nightmares and bed-wetting, difficulty paying attention, jumpiness or edginess, behavioral problems in school, symptoms like headaches, stomach aches or dizziness that don't have any known reason or cause, sadness or being less active — some of these kids may be overly active or almost hyper or irritable, or you may see changes in their eating behaviors, sleeping patterns, or a decrease in academic performance. So those are some things that you might see as signs of stress.
Schmalfeldt: The publication produced following 9-11 was specifically written for African-American families. But Doctor Haverkos said the information would be helpful to any parent wishing to help a child deal with the fear and stress caused by the recent natural disasters. You can find it by searching for publications on the website nichd.nih.gov and entering the key word "cope." From the National Institutes of Health, I'm Bill Schmalfeldt in Bethesda, Maryland.
About This Audio Report
Reporter: Bill Schmalfeldt
Sound Bite: Dr. Lynne Haverkos
Topic: Children, Mental Health