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What do I tell my kids about natural disasters?

Sep 27, 2020 01:30PM ● By Editor
Photo: Star Tribune

By Rachel Buchholz, KIDS AND FAMILY Editor in Chief - National Geographic - September 27, 2020

Growing up in Oklahoma and Texas, I faced plenty of tornados. And though my family never had a basement or cellar to huddle in once the sirens started blaring, we could always rely on the kindness of our neighbors to provide us shelter.

In my memory, these gatherings were quite festive. The kids would play while the adults joked around. Snacks were provided, and one time I even remember pizza showing up.

Of course as an adult, I understand how unreliable a child’s memory can be. But the fact that I remember these traumatic weather events as no big deal says something about how the grown-ups in my life treated them. A tornado with the power to rip our home from its foundation was violently twisting nearby. But my parents and their friends remained calm.

This summer children have been exposed to some horrific natural disasters. Communities throughout the American West have been ravaged by wildfires that have destroyed more than 5 million acres this year; the hurricane season has been so strong that scientists ran out of the predetermined list of names for 2020. But even kids who aren’t directly affected by such events can have trouble coping with the magnitude, as this Nat Geo article reports. (Above, a wildfire lights up Bidwell Bar Bridge in Oroville, California.)

“Oftentimes for kids, a weather event they aren’t experiencing physically is internalized personally as a traumatic event,” says psychologist Mindy Wallpe. That can lead to anxiety when children worry about their own safety or feel a loss of control.

One way to stave off those confusing feelings is to explain the science behind some of the weather events that might be on their minds. “Try to demystify what’s happening,” says hurricane specialist Bryan Norcross. (Here are some kid-friendly explainers on hurricanestornadoes, and other scary situations; for a deeper dive, older children can read books like Extreme Weather; younger ones can check out the Little Kids First Big Book of Weather.) 

Giving children back their sense of control can also help them feel less scared. Parents can work with them to develop a plan for whatever weather event might happen in their area; families can also think about ways they can help people affected by the natural disaster. (These volunteer ideas are things you can do safely from home.)

“Trust in your ability to know what [your children] need in that moment,” Wallpe says. “You know your child best.” Of course, snacks and pizza always help too.

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