How to make your kids feel safe — and keep them occupied — during a hurricane

How to make your kids feel safe — and keep them occupied — during a hurricane
Luis Cartagena (from left), Calie Cartagena, Rene Garbey and Tyler Sheffield stroll on the beach just south of Sebastian Inlet State Park on Sept. 9, 2017, before Hurricane Irma made its way into the area. "This is just awesome to see," Garbey said of the large waves and heavy surf caused by the wind. "The kids needed to get out of the house, and we might as well do it while we can."

Picked up my youngest, age 9, from school Thursday afternoon and he seemed a little downcast.

“They said the hurricane could be a Category 4,” he said. No trace of fear in his voice, though maybe I was missing it. His demeanor betrayed uncertainty.

If you’ve got kids you’re probably seeing the same thing. They’re worried, even though they might not come out and admit it.

So jumpy as you yourself might be, it’s your job to reassure your kids and help take their minds off what’s soon to be happening outside.

“Children may experience emotional, sleep, and behavioral problems because of storm-related stress,” according to the Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center Department of Psychiatry.

To relieve that stress, experts say the strategy is two-fold:.

►First, use the approach of the storm as a teaching moment, a time for your kids to become more knowledgeable both about the storms themselves and emergency preparedness.

►Second, during the storm, keep the kids occupied to keep their minds off what might be happening outside those boarded-up windows.

Or, as my wife puts it — make it fun.

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Make it age-appropriate.

Depending on how old your kids are, you’ll need to use age-appropriate language to talk about the storm in terms they can understand. You might be steeped in the “cone of uncertainty” and “spaghetti models,” but as far as young kids are concerned it’s enough to say that a hurricane is a big windstorm with lots of rain.

You can talk about the difference between a hurricane watch and a hurricane warning, how your child’s normal everyday activities — going to school or sports practice — might be canceled due to the storm. Prepare them for the possibility the power might go out. You can also discuss why and when some people might need to evacuate, and where your family would go if you had to leave your home.

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Experts suggest limiting their media intake as a storm approaches, as the intensity of the images and the coverage could be overwhelming for kids.

According to Security First Insurance’s “Florida is My Home” blog, another way to keep anxiety to a minimum is to involve the kids in hurricane preparations. If they’re old enough they can help bring in items from outside, they can decide what kind of snacks should be included in their “go” bags, they can pick out the clothes they want to take.

“By being more prepared, you will make your kids feel more comfortable,” notes Security First.

About those “go” bags: You want a change of clothes, food, flashlights and all the important storm-prep items, but your kids are going to want “comfort” items, too — a favorite stuffed animals, family pictures or any other prized items they own. Having those items with them will make them — and you — feel more at ease.

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Make it fun for kids

Once the storm hits, it’s important to keep kids occupied — and not with activities likely to worsen everyone’s frayed nerves (as in, my 9-year-old would just as soon fire all his Nerf guns and jump around, possibly making more noise than the hurricane itself.).

Instead, I asked him — are there word searches or puzzles you might be interested doing? That reminded him that his buddy had told him about a website where you can create and print your own custom word searches, several of which he has ready for this weekend.

Read to your kids. Have the basics on hand: Pens, pencils, crayons, blank sheets of paper. Break out the board games, playing cards or coloring books.

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Build a fort using sofa cushions and blankets where everyone can snuggle in. Use flashlights to make shadow animals. My wife and I plan to take the kids to the dollar store and load up on glow sticks and candy; “All the things they’re not usually allowed to eat, they can eat during the hurricane,” she said.

Speaking of — since your power’s probably going to go out anyway, might as well eat all the ice cream in the freezer, right?

Lastly, be a good role model — tough as that might be as the winds howl outside your door.

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“Remember, children look to you and pick up on your moods and cues,” notes the charity Save the Children on its website. And “listen to them. Although the dangers of a hurricane are very real, your child’s fears may be out of proportion or unrealistic. Take the time to talk to them and hear their concerns.”.

And then, after it’s all passed, you can teach them how to cross their fingers — and hope none of you has to go through this again any time soon.

Gil Smart is a columnist and a member of the editorial board with the TCPalm, where this column originally appeared. Follow him on Twitter at @TCPalmGilSmart.