Helping Your Kids Through a Hurricane: Thoughts on Irma

How can you help your kids through a hurricane? What can you do in anticipation of the storm, and what can you do once it’s over to make sure your kids (and you) are moving through it in an emotionally healthy way? Read on. I’ve got some important things to share with you that aren’t being talked about by others. As a conscious parent you’ll want to know about this.

I have lived in Florida for over 20 years, and I have been through my fair share of hurricanes. In 2004, we had to evacuate with two young children twice within a few weeks for Hurricanes Frances and Jeanne.

At the time, I was pretty freaked out. There’s something different about being a parent and going through a big storm like that. And my kids, while not actively freaking out, were definitely impacted by the whole experience. The not knowing where it was going and what was going to happen was really hard for everyone, even if they didn’t understand it intellectually.

As I watched the recent images and video of Hurricane Irma and listened to the advice from the professionals about how to help the children, I realized that there were some big missing pieces in how to prepare our children and how to help them after the storm is over.

In one of the reports I watched, a list from a psychologist was read by a school superintendent. He talked about explaining the science of hurricanes to our older kids, and to focus on what our younger kids can expect during the storm.

Then they jumped ahead to this: after the storm, watch your kids for signs of distress.

There wasn’t a single mention of how it might FEEL to go through a storm or how it might FEEL to not know what to expect.

What about the emotional well-being of our families?

How can we prepare them and create space for their emotional experience in anticipation of the storm, and as it’s happening, so that we aren’t waiting to try to put them back together after the fact?

Granted, sometimes things will happen that are unexpected and will need some extra support after the storm has passed. And we all need the opportunity to process afterwards and I’ll talk about how to do that. But there’s so much that can be done to support ourselves and our kids before something happens. Let’s talk about what we can do right now, before the next hurricane, earthquake, flood, fire or other disaster happens so you can help your kids as much as possible.

Things to do now:

1. Take the time to deal with your own feelings of fear, uncertainty, and figure out what you need to do to keep everyone as safe as possible.

Even if you can’t evacuate, what can you do? Finding what you CAN do is empowering and helps kids to feel more secure.

As a mama away from her kids with a huge storm approaching, I found ways to stay connected to the forecast and help them figure out where they needed to go or if it was safe to stay. I also ate a lot of chocolate. I don’t know if that was actually helpful or not, but I don’t think it hurt anything.

2. What brain state are you in?

If you’re running around throwing things into your car or into the air, you’re not ready to talk to your kids yet and connect with them and how they feel. Do what you need to do, and then ask what you need to do to regulate yourself. Moving might be what is needed. Moving helps us to regulate and move through the survival energy that becomes mobilized in our arms and legs.

I was on yellow, teetering on red. I had just been through an 8.1 magnitude earthquake here in Southern Mexico, so I was already on edge (posiblemente). First, I needed to regulate myself so that I could help them. I went for a long walk, took naps because I was super tired, and ate some more chocolate. Then I was regulated enough for the next step.

Want to know more about the brain stoplight and the green, yellow, and red I’m talking about here? Watch this video of me explaining it.
You can read more about my work and the foundation of relationships in my first book. You can find more information here.

3. Check in with your kids.

What brain state are they in? Are they on yellow? Red? Connect with their feelings and their fears, first. Give them space to express how they’re feeling. They may cry. They may be stoic. But give them space to be with their feelings and join them. Validate their feelings. Cry with them if you’re all feeling scared. Let them know they’re not the only one who is feeling something about this experience.

My kids were on green/yellow. They’re older and this isn’t the first time mom has checked in with them like this. In our situation, no one was crying or overly upset, but my youngest was distressed about our cat and the plan for his safety. I listened, validated, and then asked what he needed to make this better for him. My oldest was actually pretty excited as he made his own plans for an evacu-cation to visit his grandparents in Indiana with a friend. Road trip! He didn’t need any extra help here.

4. Once they’ve expressed their feelings and you’re feeling a bit more connected and regulated, this is the time to share information with them.

“This is what we’re going to do. We live in an evacuation zone where it isn’t safe for us to stay. We’re going to be packing up the things that we can’t replace and we’re going to a shelter (or grandma’s house or a friend’s or a hotel…). I want you to go get the things that are most important for you and put them in this bag. I’ll be packing up other things we’ll need to stay safe and we’re going to leave in about an hour. I’ll let you know when we’re ready.” Obviously, the words you say will depend on your actual circumstances and plan, but I wanted to give you an idea of what to say that you can modify for your own experiences.

My kids are older. With my oldest, who is 18, I helped him come up with a plan. I presented the facts of what was happening with the forecast and his safety. He ultimately decided where he was going to go. For my youngest, who is 13, I let him know what was going to happen and made sure he understood the plan and what HE needed to do to prepare. If they were younger, there would have been fewer BIG decisions for them to make here and more smaller decisions like what they wanted to take with them.

5. Pay attention to what your child can do to make a decision and be empowered in this process.

For a young child, it might be choosing something that’s important to the child to take along. For older kids, helping to set up the space where they’ll spend the storm or what they’d like to do during the storm that doesn’t need electricity.

My friend, Lianne, was preparing her children for Hurricane Irma in Melbourne, FL. They decided to set up a safe space on the lower level of their house and she let the kids decide how to set up the space so they would be comfortable. I think it worked!

Lianne’s daughter sleeping near the basket of things she brought down for her safe space.

I told my 13-year-old to go into his room and pack up the things that were the most important to him. I told him that we weren’t sure what was going to happen with the hurricane or the house, so this was something that he could do. He’s older. If he were younger, I probably wouldn’t bring this up, but rather would say that we were doing everything we could to prepare ourselves and our house and leave it at that. If he would ask more, I would tell him more about hurricanes and the kinds of things that can happen depending on how strong a storm is. But I know my kid and you know yours, so use your best intuition when deciding what to tell yours, just like I did with mine.

6. Make plans for your pets and talk about it with your kids.

Jazzman. The cat in question. Quite possibly the world’s most tolerant cat. Though I may be partial.

Kids love their pets and need to be part of the conversation about keeping them safe. Whether it means they’re helping to clean the cage and getting ready to go into the car, or moving a cage into the bathroom where they’ll be safer, they need to have a part in this process. It may even be helpful, especially with younger kids, to talk to the pets about what they can expect with the storm, with your kids. It’s another way for children to hear what’s going to happen that may be easier for younger kids to digest.

The cat was actually a point of contention. Eventually it was decided that the cat would be happier not evacuating and having the neighbor who usually watches him during travel times check in on him. My son made sure there was food and water for him and gave him lots of love before he left. When he was worried about the cat while away, he decided that he could ask to contact the neighbor to make sure everything was ok. He settled when that was decided. It also empowered him with something he could do.

7. Use puppets or stuffed animals to show what’s going to happen with the storm and your family.

Some kids will process better and show you how they’re feeling if they have stuffed animals or puppets. Let them play. Tell the story with them and leave space for them to show you how they’re feeling.

My kids are older, so we won’t use puppets (although they would probably enjoy it if I brought them out!). But we will talk about their experiences once they’ve both returned home. They’re both still on their evacu-cations, so I’ll wait a little longer here since they aren’t in distress because of the hurricane. My oldest is happily enjoying time with his grandparents and my youngest is enjoying a Disney hotel with an arcade. It can wait.

8. Find the humor in things when you can.

My Facebook feed is filled with funny memes about the storm and stories about families who created silly videos as they were waiting for the storm. Find humor. It connects the two hemispheres of your brain and helps you to regulate. Granted, sometimes things aren’t funny. It’s ok to feel those feelings, too. But sometimes, you’ve just got to laugh!

9. A word on babies.

Babies are there with you the whole time, and they’re experiencing everything right along with you, even a hurricane. Except they don’t know what’s happening. Talk to your baby every time there’s a change or you’re feeling something big. Let them know that it isn’t about them and that you’re doing your best to make this ok for them and everyone. Create space for their feelings, too. It helps. This goes for babies in the womb, too.

On Thursday, I’ll be sharing what you can do after the storm to help your family and your kids to integrate the experience, whether anything really difficult happened (like a tree falling on your house) or not. Come back to read the rest of our series on Helping Your Kids Through a Hurricane.


Here is the link to the follow-up post: After a Hurricane: What You Can Do to Help Your Family

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