Hurricane Harvey: What should you tell kids about what’s happening?

2:27 p.m Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017 Local
Jackson Dugan 5, far right, and his brother, Carter Dugan, 2, donate items along with their mother Shannon Dugan at the Circle C Community Center in South Austin on Monday. Natalie Kifer, center, looks on.

We’re all watching it on TV, on social media. Scene after scene of boat rescues, flooded streets, people on rooftops. Our kids are watching it, too, and they’re watching our stress levels rise as we worry about what is happening in Houston and to people we might know.

What are we supposed to tell our kids about Hurricane Harvey?

That depends on the age of your child as well as the kind of child you have, says Julia Hoke, a licensed psychologist and the director of psychological services at Austin Child Guidance Center. Most children of preschool age and younger probably don’t need to be told much, she says. Realize that kids that age are very self-centered and think that it must be happening here and to them, Hoke says. Reassure them that you are safe.

If your child is particularly sensitive and tends to worry a lot, be especially careful about what you say.

“You really need to know your individual child,” says Dr. Julie Alonso-Katzowitz, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Dell Children’s Medical Center of Central Texas.

With elementary school-age children and older, you can watch TV with them and ask them what their questions are. Answer them honestly but don’t given them any more information than they need. Again, you’re trying to avoid worry about things you and your children cannot control.

More suggestions:

• Do make your kids feel safe. Reassure them that you are doing everything to keep them safe and that we are OK here.

Do give them information, but without a lot of extra information. Give simple answers. Remain calm and reassuring. If you don’t know, it’s OK to say that.

Do normalize their feelings. Tell them: “Of course, you’re really worried about this,” then praise them for the empathy they are showing.

Do talk about what you would do in an emergency. Being able to reassure them that you have a plan if they were in danger can be comforting. Where would you go? What would you do? But don’t dwell on that, says Alonso-Katzowitz. Reassure them: “Right now we’re safe and we have resources.”

Don’t give them false reassurances. You shouldn’t say “No. that can never happen here,” says Melanie Storrusten, a licensed clinical social worker who focuses on stress management. “That’s not a true statement,” she says. “The world isn’t 100 percent guaranteed to be safe.”

Do limit the amount of TV and social media about Harvey both you and your children are watching and consuming. You need a break from it.

Do let them know about any close family members who have been affected. Try to limit that conversation to positive things that are happening if you can.

Do prepare them for the possibility that relatives might be coming to live with you. Get them involved in how that might play out: Where would they sleep? What toys or clothes could your family or friends borrow? “Recognize that kids aren’t little adults and may have mixed reactions to it,” Hoke says.

Don’t make promises you can’t keep. Don’t tell them your family will be fine. Don’t tell them your family is only coming for a few days and then you’ll have your room back.

Do talk to them about the positive things that are happening: The boat rescues, the way ordinary people are helping other people, the animals that have been saved, the way first responders are working to help people. That can help prevent excessive worry.

Do engage in ways you can help as a family. Research local nonprofits who are helping. Find out what different organizations are collecting. Let your kids play a role in what your family decides to do. “It can help you regain some sense of power and control,” says Storrusten, especially if you’ve been feeling out of control and helpless as you watch the events unfold on TV.

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Do protect yourself with self-care, especially if you are volunteering. This is going to be a long recovery effort. Make sure you’re eating well and getting sleep. Even watching the events unfold, you might not realize the emotional toll it is taking on you that will later be felt by your family.

Do try to keep your family routine the same, as much as possible. This might not be possible for families that are taking in more people or have been evacuated or have a parent that has been sent to Houston to help, but kids take comfort in the same bedtime, the same books read at night, eating meals together.

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