Talking to Kids Scared by Superstorm Sandy

By Garry A. Emmett, M.D., F.A.A.P.

I can blog again now that my married children and their families are out of my apartment in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy -- with one family back in Hoboken and one family finishing their travels on working airplanes!  My granddaughter, Rachel, is 2 ½ and is a lot of fun, but as our  week together went on, this toddler was increasingly nervous about why her family had to leave home so suddenly and what had happened to her home and school (both, luckily, suffering almost no damage). 

Children in general do not like change – disruptions of routine can make them very anxious.  Preschool children especially may not understand that loss of a house or a beloved animal is permanent. Their parents also get very anxious. And while adults understand what is happening much more clearly, you may feel uncertain about how much to share with kids -- or how to talk with them about a disaster that’s affected your own family, others in your community or people you hear about via the news media.

It’s important for parents to know that kids do worry -- and want to talk about what’s happening. They need reassurance and information appropriate to their age and developmental level. Even older kids may worry that if they or others have to leave their home or school, for example, they may never be able to go back. If parents are trying to avoid upsetting children by not talking with them about the experience, kids may assume they shouldn’t ask -- and feel alone with their fears and worries.

The antidote? Talk. The American Academy of Pediatrics  has updated their website about how to deal with children in disasters,, this post is a short summary of that content.

Talking to children about disasters:

  1. Do not be afraid to talk to your child about a disaster but try to do it positively and dwell on what is being done to fix it and how can they contribute to helping out. With younger
  2. With younger children explained the problem simply but then discuss all the people that are trying to get the electricity back on or clean up the streets
  3. With older children give more details and give them something to do that helps the family
  4. Limit how much they listen to media coverage which dwells on the worse and is biased to the sensational
  5. Let your children talk at their own level about what they are feeling and let them be appropriately sad and grieve for what they lost.

I hope you will never have to use this advice, but it is good to know about it

Garry A. Emmett, M.D., F.A.A.P., has been a primary care pediatrician in South Philadelphia and Center City since 1979. He is currently an attending pediatrician at Nemours Pediatrics, Philadelphia and director of hospital pediatrics at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital.