Helping the kids cope with Hurricane Sandy

Madison Maher, left, runs out into the rain and wind while her mother, Susan Sorenson, takes a picture of the rough surf in Sea Bright, N.J., Monday, Oct. 29, 2012. Hurricane Sandy continued on its path Monday, as the storm forced the shutdown of mass transit, schools and financial markets, sending coastal residents fleeing, and threatening a dangerous mix of high winds and soaking rain. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

by Sari Harrar

There’s plenty to stress about with Frankenstorm Sandy bearing down on the East Coast - with high winds, flooding and black-outs on the way. But as I packed an emergency bag, downloaded computer files, walked a dog who wasn’t in a hurry to do her business, hauled out lanterns and flashlights and urged our daughter to finish her laundry and pack ‘just in case ... I realized that freaking her out wasn’t contributing to smart emergency preparedness.

How can you get kids ready for uncertainty? Stay calm. Help them understand the nuts-and-bolts of the situation, at a level that’s right for them. And understand how kids may react - becoming fearful (younger kids may wet the bed again or revert to baby talk), angry or even sick (stomach aches, headaches, sleep problems).

These resources can help:

The Federal Emergency Management’s “Be Prepared in Any Situation” site for kids has a step-by-step plan and activities for kids. Geared to older elementary-schoolers on up, it starts by teaching kids the facts about seven emergency situations - from hurricanes and flooding to earthquakes and terrorism. Next, it outlines how families can create an emergency plan, with printable wallet/pocket cards you can fill in so everyone knows what to do and who to call if you’re not together. Finally, it shows kids and families how to pack an emergency kit.

Along the way, the site offers games like word searches and scavenger hunts to reinforce key points - great when you’re hunkered down waiting for the storm to blow over, without a lot to do. It also links out to sites for younger kids, like these:

Sesame Street’s Let’s Get Ready: Planning Together for Emergencies Web site. Videos aimed at preschoolers and young elementary schoolers, starring Sesame Street characters, explain how to get ready in an emergency. Plus printable activity sheets, info on creating a family plan.

FEMA’s Flat Stanley and Flat Stella preparedness Web site. The popular, adventurous paper-flat characters are on a mission to teach kids about hurricane prep via mobile phone apps, a video, printable copies of the flat duo to take along.

The Children’s Health Fund offers a printable kid’s hurricane safety plan with a lovely twist - it includes room for kids to list the items they’ll bring along to help them feel safe and happy if they have to leave home. The group also has smart advice parents can use to give kids a sense of safety and control during uncertain times. Among their tips:

  • Let children know they can talk to you about their fears. Be calm and listen to what they have to say. You may be surprised at their questions and concerns - and have the opportunity to soothe in unexpected ways. For example, kids who think they’ll need to leave home may fear they’ll never return.
  • Don’t talk about your own fears in front of children. They need to know that you are calm. But do discuss your family’s hurricane plan.
  • Turn off the news. You may want to keep your children away from TV or radio news covering the hurricane. Too much news is scary for children.
  • If you evacuate, try to keep things normal. Try to keep the same bedtimes, mealtimes, and rules.
  • Help your children deal with fears. Draw pictures, write in a journal, and listen to music, sing or exercise.
  • Talk with your children about what they can bring with them during an evacuation. This can include: A comfort item (blanket, stuffed animal); one or two special things; activities (portable game, books, coloring book); a flashlight or glow stick; snacks.
Finally, some advice from the always soothing Mr. Rogers:
" ... In every generation, some of our children will always encounter the truly fearful aspects of life.  Unfortunately, almost all children nowadays will encounter them vividly and repeatedly on television.  These encounters leave their marks, as all encounters do, but marks are not necessarily scars.

I believe that one of the surest ways to keep the scars to a minimum is for caregivers to understand that what’s most important to young children is to be with the people they love (at least to know that they’re available) and to help them see that the world is peopled with many concerned and caring adults."