How do I talk to my kids about natural disasters?

Talking to children about hurricanes and other natural disasters such as wildfires, tornadoes, earthquakes, can often be an extremely sensitive subject.

BOULDER, Colo. -- When Hurricane Katrina struck in August of 2005, devastation reigned throughout New Orleans. Nearly 2,000 lives were lost, over 34,000 people had to be rescued by the Coast Guard, and the area was completely flooded due to levees collapsing. However, even as the city rebuilt itself, the trauma still loomed from the monstrous storm in many victims’ lives, especially children.

Talking to children about hurricanes and other natural disasters such as wildfires, tornadoes, earthquakes can often be an extremely sensitive subject, says Dr. Stephen Berkowitz, a child psychologist at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. 

The most crucial method a parent should take when talking to their children about an upcoming natural disaster predicted is making sure they prepare for it together. Preparing a "to-go bag" of items, they may need to stay safe with the help of their children allows them to feel prepared and not alone. This sense of togetherness is crucial with children of all ages.

"When you do that with your child, and you have to select a limited number of toys or books or whatever it is, really discuss why you're doing this, and it's about being safe, and we hope we never have to use it," Berkowitz said. "But this is a way to make sure that we're all safe and we can keep our family together and be together."

While it is essential to keep your children informed, with younger children, around the ages 2-4, it may be best not to tell them too much. Overexplaining could cause kids to become more stressed than they need to be, especially when the storm hasn’t hit yet and no one knows how severe it will actually be.

"For the younger age group, the focus really is on 'we're going to make sure you're safe,' 'we're doing this to make sure you're safe.' " Berkowitz said. "I do not recommend the anticipatory books on hurricanes and all that because all it does is it will increase anxiety for something that you don't really know what's going to happen."

In contrast with younger children, it is good to teach school-age children more about the weather. 

"It's good to approach it from a kind of intellectual perspective -- here's what we know about hurricanes, here's how the weather station helps us know," he said. "A little like a basic primer."

If they learn in a way that makes them feel a sense of togetherness, it will put them at ease for what’s to come. If you prepare together, they will feel more engaged with the family and learn for future experiences.

Dr. Berkowitz also explains that a promising approach for talking to school-age children is asking what their friends are saying about it. Discussion amongst peers is an excellent way to get a sense of how much children are talking about it and what their friends tell them.

In schools, teachers and administrators should make it a point to teach children about natural disasters. Having a spot in the curriculum for hurricanes and other severe weather situations helps children become more familiar with storm preparedness and the different levels of possibilities. Further, teaching them about it allows them to become aware of these extreme situations much earlier than the day before a major storm.

Parents should also be aware of the aftermath of a significant storm. PTSD, Post-traumatic stress disorder and SED, Serious Emotional Disturbance, are common conditions in children after a highly traumatic situation such as a Category 5 Hurricane. While these conditions vary by case, parents should know their symptoms and what they can do to help their children. Parents should help process the situation with the child and be as transparent as possible to help them recover.