NEW ORLEANS – As hurricane season returns each June for New Orleans residents, it's easy to focus on the physical preparations, thereby overlooking the potential risks weather events can have on our mental state.
“Disasters such as hurricanes, floods and other natural phenomena are unfortunately part of the life experiences of many children, especially in our state and city,” said Dr. Andrew Williams, a child and adolescent psychiatry specialist with Children’s Hospital. “Parents should not "pretend" these events don't exist, but rather calmly acknowledge their possibility and discuss with their children in an age-appropriate manner how the family will handle them in the safest and least disruptive manner possible.”
Being open with children and answering their questions about storms and other potentially traumatic events and allowing them to actively participate in helping the family prepare to handle such occurrences increases a child's feeling of control and helps to allay their overall anxiety and distress, according to Dr. Williams.
Signs that a child is worrying needlessly would be excessive observable anxiety resulting in disturbances in appetite, sleep and/or tension, fatigue, headaches, gastrointestinal distress or other somatic symptoms. Children may engage in repetitive compulsive checking behaviors looking outside or attempting to access television, internet or other social media sources in a manner that fuels their underlying distress.
“Requesting reassurance that they and other family members are safe is natural, but when such behavior increases to the extent that it significantly impairs a child's ability to function requires additional attention, redirection and possible professional interventions,” said Dr. Williams, adding, “Of course, children who are already dealing with diagnosed anxiety, mood disorders or have a previous history of trauma are at an increased risk to struggle during these times and should be monitored closely, accessing professional help when needed.”
Among Dr. Williams best words of advice include:
- Caregivers should prepare for hurricane season with children in advance. Best advice regarding storms and natural disasters would be for caregivers to prepare for them with their children in advance.
- Caregivers should discuss, in a calm, measured manner, and put in writing what they will do, with and for their children, in the event of an approaching or occurring natural disaster.
- Children need to know that every effort will be made to keep them safe and the family together, even if their day to day routine is disrupted for a period of time and that there are professionals of all types and training that will work with the family to protect and keep them safe when and if necessary.
- Children should be provided with emergency numbers and contacts and given practice on how to access these resources in advance.
- Television and other media access should be accessed in a limited fashion, keeping in mind that such sources may emphasize and even dramatize the potential "worst possible outcomes" playing on the imagination and fears of children during crises.
Pets should also be an integral part of a safety plan, as they are viewed as part of the family, and children should know that they will be safeguarded as such. Plans should be made including providing emergency food and water for these loved ones and potential shelters and "pet-friendly" hotels and motels that can be accessed if needed.
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Dr. Andrew Williams is a Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist at Children's Hospital New Orleans. He received his degree from Michigan State College of Human Medicine in East Lansing, MI, and completed his residency at LSU Health Sciences Center in New Orleans, LA. Dr. Andrews has Board Certifications by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology in Psychiatry and Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and he specializes in substance use/addiction, thought disorders, anxiety disorders and mood disorders.