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Preparing children for hurricanes.

Discussing what may occur before a storm strikes can prepare youngsters for the mental and physical trauma that usually follows a disaster and thus help to ease much of the anxiety.

"I AM WRITING an article on hurricanes," I told a Dade County Juvenile Court judge. "That's very nice, Doctor," she replied. "I remember very well getting ready for my first hurricane with my parents when I was very young." Before long, the congenial judge was reminiscing about her youth and talking about her family, especially her mother.

Living in Miami, Fla., which was in the direct path of Hurricane Andrew in August, 1992, and is home to the National Hurricane Center, I have observed the media's and municipal authorities' intense interest in such storms and hurricane preparation. Even the University of Miami athletic teams take their name from these natural phenomena. There are a wide range of reactions to hurricanes, modified by individual and collective factors such as experiencing a previous natural disaster. Some people. diligently plan for the storm. Others deny its peril and reject the need for precaution. Some even celebrate the hurricane's imminent arrival. Psychological factors play an important role in how people cope with crisis situations and the aftermath. Accordingly, optimal preparation prior to anticipated danger improves emotional outcome. This technological know-how in affecting psychological outcome has extended to children since young people no longer are considered innocent, passive onlookers to dangerous situations.

Many who prepare for a hurricane probably never will experience a direct hit, although, over time, individuals who live in a high-risk geographical area have a more than negligible probability of sustaining one. Hurricane preparation allows families an excellent opportunity to consider several important emotional issues so that members will benefit by psychological preparation even if they do not experience the full wrath of the anticipated storm. Effective hurricane anticipation will help kids ready themselves in ways that will result in significant emotional growth, healthier psychological well-being, the ability to face successfully potential crises in general, and specifically to reduce the trauma should they be victims of a direct hit.

Natural disasters have variable periods of potential impending psychological threat. One never can predict a hurricane's path absolutely. Once the tropical storm becomes a hurricane, however, it has a finite and relatively short-lived existence. This contrasts to the time frame of other potential natural disasters. The danger of an earthquake is ever-present in a geographical area (i.e., the San Andres Fault in California) and thus is a longer-lived, chronic threat. On the other hand, lightning has a negligible period of impending danger. The one-to two-week life of a hurricane (which appears to have a synchronous fit to the periodicity of human emotional rhythm) fosters the development of strong responses. Among these are reawakened sensations of parental bonding and feelings of love and rejection, trust and mistrust, and security and helplessness. A shorter time may not suffice for effective surfacing and processing of such feelings, while a longer one may cause emotional overload.

Advanced hurricane detection now gives more time to organize, thereby reducing the vulnerability to impending hurricane threats. It also allows communities to develop a contingency plan long before the actual hurricane season. This is unique because a hurricane is one of the few disasters that people know may be coming soon. Additionally, sophisticated meteorological advances allow families a window of time during which life appears normal, with no overt cause for panic. In this way, what one faces when bracing psychologically for a hurricane is unique and offers singular opportunities for emotional growth. Children can develop and strengthen lifelong tools to manage impending doom that will help them to cope better, for example, with such personal stressors as a life-threatening illness in a close relative.

Psychological preparation for such storms is similar to the stages of physical hurricane formulation. Hurricane officials advise to make emergency plans before the storm hits. Such slogans as "preparation is better than panic" should apply to psychological preparation as well, yet that does not receive the attention it deserves, especially in regard to youngsters, in contradistinction to the efforts at curative treatment following the traumatic event.

Pre-storm preparation

Because the consequence of a hurricane can be so devastating, a common reaction to a hurricane threat is denial. This is natural, and, while individual knowledge of its existence may lessen its personal grip, more sophisticated methods of reducing denial and facilitating effective action prior to the hurricane striking are available and should be used.

For example, the aftermath of 1992 hurricanes in Florida and Hawaii make it abundantly obvious that there are massive psychological traumas following the storm. The Federal government is willing to declare a region a national emergency area following a hurricane, even sending in troops, yet chooses to do relatively little prior to a direct hit. The concept of invoking a region as a psychological emergency zone prior to a direct hit has not been promulgated yet by disaster officials, who should do so.

Invoking such a strategy before a hurricane strikes can provide for the following preventive mental health measures: Communities facing such a potential hit may counteract psychological denial that will tend to take place in the 48 hours prior to a potential direct hit by using media stars, politicians, and other people the specific population looks up to. Public service announcements with a heavy local flavor should saturate the airways. Personal videos and audio messages by the President prior to the hurricane would help reduce people's denial of the threat and allow them to take more effective action.

Every family should be encouraged to set up a buddy system with a family 250-300 miles away. Computer networks to match families can be developed and maintained by governmental agencies similar to organ donor networks. This buddy system can remain in effect after the hurricane, thus having people of several nearby communities involved in post-disaster support.

More organized efforts can be made to bring the reality of the hurricane's intensity to the public. A nation that can place astronauts on the moon and deploy troops quickly can do a better job of getting vehicles, specially equipped personnel, and remote-controlled high-tech cameras to regions prior to being hit, rather than relying on a local TV correspondent standing on a beach with an umbrella reporting the beginning fury of a storm.

Moreover, psychological aftereffects can be reduced in persons who choose to leave the storm area by providing them with ongoing information of the damage and effects of the storm. During Hurricane Andrew, although private radio and TV stations in Tampa and Atlanta carried live hookups with Miami, this was on a hit-and-miss basis and should be developed, fostered, and publicized as part of a community's psychological plan and not be left to chance.

As the hurricane season approaches, the family can begin discussing the pros and cons of making advanced hurricane arrangements. This is not always the obvious course of action, especially so when last year's efforts seem unnecessary in hindsight since its hurricanes veered off course. This is a good time to complete old business and close out unresolved feelings regarding the activities of the previous year. A child still may feel guilty because he or she did not handle his task well or harbor an unresolved fear or memory of a scary dream. Talking about such a feeling with others usually is sufficient to put it to final rest. This also may be the time to discuss the reasons why people respond in the strange ways they do. No planning at all may be a reaction to overwhelming overload and fear, similar to stage fright. Celebration can be likened to the psychological response of behaving exactly opposite to how one feels, such as people laughing and giggling when they are very nervous.

Planning for a hurricane can serve as a stepping stone to discussions of the broad scope of emergencies in general. In them, parents should be attentive to the fact that kids learn by example. Disciplined action tends to reduce anxiety and long-term guilt. The very act of parents trying to thwart potential peril gives children the important message that coping with risk best is dealt with by facing threats, not by denying their existence. Parents can point out that it is very common for people to handle danger by denying that it may take place. They can emphasize that, although it may be healthy to deal initially with an overwhelming danger in this way, it would be self-defeating to maintain this position indefinitely.

Rehashing critical situations the family has faced previously may be used as a springboard for discussion. This has the added advantage of providing members an opportunity to work through their unresolved feelings (frequently residual guilt and sadness) from earlier crises. To use knowledge and psychological strength acquired during a crisis can promote psychological well-being and self-esteem. Family experiences with prior crises such as serious illness are helpful.

These discussions should be geared to the developmental level of the youngsters. Siblings can improve communication among themselves by explaining and re-interpreting what is discussed to each other. The importance of prevention and preparation should be stressed. Examples of successful outcomes resulting from previous preparation and/or prevention should be provided.

Early on, the family should devise a general strategy, including delineating each member's emergency role. It is important that children have a task based on their level of development. The responsibility of a personal task is an important way of helping reduce anxiety and also furthers over-all competence.

While individual roles in a family differ by personal temperament, it is important for parents to assure that each child plays a significant role. That can set the stage for the person's future role modeling outside the family. Children easily understand and pick up on that. This is the time for parents to understand they are teaching parental and gender roles by example. The family whose mother is not part of the crisis arrangements because "she gets too nervous" sends a powerful negative message to the children about the role of females in crisis situations.

In these discussions, parents may contrast different coping mechanisms to one another. Active participation should be seen as favorable, while reactions such as being so frightened that panic or "freezing" results should be discouraged. This can be an advantageous time to discuss the many possible ways families may fare with potential catastrophe. These are difficult topics. Families generally have abdicated their role in teaching their children about emotionally charged subjects. The result has been an overreliance on the schools to provide this education, which they have done poorly.

An important way families manage potential catastrophe is with insurance, a concept vital to any hurricane plan. Conversations regarding property insurance can lead to more sensitive issues such as Social Security, pension, disability, and health and life insurance--all examples of methods to deal with unexpected personal catastrophes. The underlying tone is that advanced planning and active involvement coupled with a dose of optimism are effective methods of overcoming danger and anxiety.

These talks about insurance may bring up issues of death and dying. Discussing such topics in an open fashion helps to explore fears such as what will happen if "Daddy or Mommy get sick or die"? Children who learn that parents have taken contingencies for such unforeseeable events have increased comfort and reduction in anxiety.

Contending with anxiety by displacement onto other situations or events can be a healthy defense. Parents should be attuned that kids may displace some of their anxieties into dream material and should lend a willing ear to youngsters who want to talk about their dreams, especially during the period of an imminent hurricane strike or the post-storm phase.

Involving children in organizing activities reduces their anxiety. Family members could be given a chore commensurate with their developmental level to ensure the group's safety and comfort. Child-oriented tasks could include maintaining an up-to-date inventory of batteries or tracking the coordinates of the storm. Children should be encouraged to consider ways in which they will pass their time should communication and travel be dislocated severely. This allows them to learn how to pick priorities as they plan what they would place in their emergency kits.

Parents should support their offspring and recognize that this is an opportunity for the children to make extremely important decisions. Youngsters should be encouraged and reminded to protect favorite stuffed animals and/or dolls. Mothers and fathers need to remember that these are tough choices for children to make. The desire to take 10 stuffed animals may reflect difficulty to make choices and set priorities. Alternatively, the decision not to take anything of importance may be an example not of bravado, but of helplessness or poor self-esteem. Kids should be helped to express their fears and disappointments and not necessarily be "brave." While parents need to project a sense of leadership and strength, they also should be aware that they can provide children with important cues by expressing some fear, anxiety, or disappointment.

Children should be included as a member of the family in developing a list of items to be put in a very safe place. This includes family photos, especially those of a child's accomplishments; pictures of youngsters with their parents or grandparents, especially if the parent or grandparent is not living or is not an integral part of the family; important drawings or other crafts; report cards, school mementos, trophies, and other awards; and special clothes that should be placed in safe-keeping prior to the onset of a hurricane. With such advanced preparation, even if a home is damaged severely, important emotionally charged items should be able to be saved intact.

Parents can help their offspring deal with their feelings and responsibility in general by having them take charge of the well-being of the family pet. Children normally are very sensitive to the feelings of animals. By taking care of the family or personal pet, youngsters can act out and project many of their concerns onto that of the animal. Children worrying about where the dog would sleep also may be expressing their own fears related to leaving their cherished bed. Pets allow youngsters a very important way of communicating feelings and learning responsibility. Parents whose off-spring do not have pets should encourage them to do so since animals are excellent facilitators for children to learn about and experience caring, bonding, and loss. Even simple pets such as hamsters serve the caring needs of children.

It is important that parents do not minimize the significance to the child of assuring that each pet's safety is guaranteed. Doing so may question the youngster's certainty that the parent is dedicated absolutely to his or her own safety. While the importance of pets should not be minimized, the process can be fostered even in situations where children, because of a variety of factors, including allergies, may not be able to have a pet. In this case, parents must recognize the importance of other transitional objects such as a stuffed animal, favorite security blanket, or meaningful souvenir or gift.

Children can be helped to understand their own feelings when parents let them know that they have felt similarly when they were young. These feelings should be kept in perspective, however. To acknowledge too much fear only would serve to tarnish the image in the child's eyes of the strong parent. Children respect adults who can acknowledge their feelings and allow them to be expressed. They do not respect or learn from adults who act like children, for this induces fear, not comfort.

Concern for absent family members

Deliberations about family safety should include a discussion of the security of absent members and whether or not they should be included in the emergency plan of the primary family. Single-parent households especially need to assure the well-being of loved members not living in the primary unit. Parents can express apprehensions for their own siblings or parents whose safety also may be endangered. Preparations may include having a grandparent in the emergency plan. This demonstrates to children the important loving interactions between their own mothers and fathers and the latter's parents.

During pre-planning and the hours when actual emergency procedures are in effect, attention should be paid to the various community facilities and civil and governmental agencies that increase the over-all safety of the family. Children can be helped to comprehend in a firsthand fashion how modern life requires a great amount of interdependency among people. If applicable, families may consider their good fortune and how they may assist neighbors who might need aid.

Family talks are an opportune time for parents to reminisce about how they coped with potential natural disasters when they were children. Tying events of one generation to another provides youngsters with a sense of intergenerational continuity and immortality. This may be a time to discuss Mother Nature in general, remembering that all of us have unconscious concerns regarding our own trust in her. Most of us go to bed at night confident that the sun will rise the next morning. Most children go to bed not quite as confident that mommy or daddy will be present in the morning. Youngsters should be allowed opportunities to express such anxieties.

Parents who foster discussion and encourage a communal experience of other non-threatening natural phenomena help to desensitize children to the threats of Mother Nature and aid their experience of her as the relatively consistent phenomenon she really is. Thanks to the wonders of science, families can take the opportunity to partake in predictable and non-threatening natural events such as eclipses or phenomena such as Halley's Comet. This enables kids to see the predictability of Mother Nature and that, over all, parents (and Mother Nature, too) can be counted on. Since some of these phenomena occur rarely--perhaps only a few times in a lifetime--it is an opportunity to talk about the immortality of nature, ideas, and feelings.

It is a philosophically, but emotionally healthy, position to inculcate in children that they have a cultural responsibility to gain ideas and experiences from their parents and pass them on to their own offspring. To some degree, the feeling of immortality and psychological well-being can increase by passing on these experiences from one generation to another. Families should consider using the wonders of nature in this manner, so that "little Susan" or "little David" one day, when they are "Mommy Susan" or "Daddy David," may share with their own children how they experienced an eclipse or the circumstances surrounding their observance of Halley's Comet.
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Author:Seligman, Fred
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Date:May 1, 1993
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