A natural disaster, such as the hurricane wreaking havoc on the shores of Florida and New Orleans, is always a difficult time for adults and children. During this time, our primary focus is coping with the issues, and problems that arise from them. Our children, however, are not immune. They see most of the same media coverage, read the newspapers, and hear the reports on the radio.

Just as we have feelings and react, our children will do the same. It is very important for us to be able to guide our children through these times for it is this modeling that will lay the foundation for them to cope now and throughout their lives. These are real life events that are part of the circumstances of our lives. We must deal with them and it will be best for us as well as our children to deal with them in a proactive informed manner.

Let’s take a look at our most recent event hurricane:

Jack who is 8 has been watching his parents and various other family members and friends stay close to the TV all weekend, as they monitor the course of the hurricane coming from the south.

He eats lunch, and eventually dinner, hearing them talk of their concerns and the possible impacts on everything from vacations to damage. When he is in his for his bath he says to his mom, “what’s a hurricane?”

His mother calmly explains that it is a big rain storm with lots of wind but there is nothing for him to worry about. Despite this brief explanation, Jack still has questions and concerns.

After his story and a big hug and kiss from mom and dad, he heads for his room and is tucked in for the night. A few hours later, his parents hear a voice coming from his room. After a quiet investigation they discover him talking in his sleep. They become distressed – Jack hasn’t talked in his sleep since he was 2 years old. Around 3 AM they are awoken by his yelling, “No, no hold on!” Again they explore and find him asleep.

Upon awakening in the morning his first inquiry is, “Is the hurricane over?”

Clearly Jack’s anxiety for the hurricane is quite overwhelming for him. It is spilling over to his sleep, where the anxiety is playing out in his inability to sleep soundly. He is aware of his family’s concerns and has noticed the increased interest in news reports in his home.

Aware of his anxiety and his need to express his fears, his parents incorporate him in to some of age-appropriate family discussions and allow him to verbalize and also have him draw some pictures of his version of the storm. They continue to include him in their discussions over the next few days and, as the storm approaches and passes without incident, Jack is now sleeping in his usual manner of 11-12 solid hours/night.

Here are a few suggestions to employ for your child in a natural disaster:

1) Acknowledge: Let your children know that you have concerns etc. Hiding them only makes children worry more.

2) Monitor: Be mindful of the amounts and types of media coverage in your home.

3) Reassure: Support your child in a manner that is age-appropriate, and be aware of behavioral changes.

Always ask for assistance when unsure of how to proceed.

Dr. Charles Sophy currently serves as Medical Director for the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), which is responsible for the health, safety and welfare of nearly 40,000 foster children. He also has a private psychiatry practice in Beverly Hills, California. Dr. Sophy has lectured extensively and is an Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the University of California Los Angeles Neuro-Psychiatric Institute. His lectures and teachings are consistently ranked as among the best by those in attendance.
Dr. Charles Sophy, author of the “Keep ‘Em Off My Couch” blog, provides real simple answers for solving life’s biggest problems. He specializes in improving the mental health of children. To contact Dr. Sophy, visit his blog at http://drsophy.com.

Copyright © 2005 Charles Sophy