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How to talk to children about Hurricane Ian

A school mental health expert says to let them know what’s happening, keep a routine and stay calm.
As the hurricane approaches, ”have a plan and review that plan with your children,” says Michael Kelleher, supervisor of clinical care for the Hillsborough County School District. “Let them know how you’re keeping your family safe.”
As the hurricane approaches, ”have a plan and review that plan with your children,” says Michael Kelleher, supervisor of clinical care for the Hillsborough County School District. “Let them know how you’re keeping your family safe.”
Published Sep. 26|Updated Sep. 26

Your child was expecting to go to school Monday morning, but he’s home as the Tampa Bay area prepares for Hurricane Ian.

Should you worry about his mental health?

In some cases, yes.

“Their routine has changed,” said Michael Kelleher, who oversees psychological services as supervisor of clinical care for the Hillsborough County School District.

”And in these last three years, we’ve all gone through so much.”

Michael Kelleher is supervisor of clinical care for the Hillsborough County school district.
Michael Kelleher is supervisor of clinical care for the Hillsborough County school district. [ Hillsborough County Public Schools ]

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic and campus violence, anxiety and other mental health issues are being reported more widely among schoolchildren. School counselors, nurses, psychologists and social workers are available should problems arise.

And there are steps parents can take to minimize the damage of an event like Hurricane Ian.

First: Get organized. ”Have a plan and review that plan with your children,” Kelleher said. “Let them know how you’re keeping your family safe.”

What you tell your kids will depend largely on their age. “Younger children may not understand the ins and outs,” he said. “Keep it simple.” Older children can learn about the science of hurricanes. They can review maps and storm patterns. In that way, “they will feel reassured with the facts.”

It is useful, he said, to limit children’s consumption of television news, which can be alarming and repetitive.

Most important is for adults to watch how they address the situation. ”I think remaining calm, no matter what age group, is the most important,” he said. “Our children take cues from the adults in their lives.”

One useful strategy is to get the family on a schedule. Plan homework time, assign chores to children who are old enough. Make sure everyone is eating well and getting exercise.

The closing of schools is an opportunity for children to learn how people and institutions are inter-related. Tell them that the schools are closed because there are individuals and families who cannot ride out the storm on their own.

“I do love that community connectivity piece of it,” Kelleher said. “Let them know how our community works together to be prepared so we all are safe, and the school district is a big part of that community.”

After the storm passes and children return to schools, parents are advised to pay attention. Depending on the child and the severity of the event, there might be a need for counseling.

Kelleher said that of the many lessons of COVID-19, school employees have learned how to spot emotional problems in children. As for parents, he said, “look for that sudden change of behavior. In younger children, you might see regression in their behavior, clinginess or thumb-sucking.”

Older children might become more combative or aggressive. They might have trouble eating or sleeping. “If it extends over a period of time, start reaching out for those resources,” Kelleher said.

• • •

2022 Tampa Bay Times Hurricane Guide

IT'S STORM SEASON: Get ready and stay informed at tampabay.com/hurricane.

RISING THREAT: Tampa Bay will flood. Here's how to get ready.

DOUBLE-CHECK: Checklists for building all kinds of hurricane kits

PHONE IT IN: Use your smartphone to protect your data, documents and photos.

SELF-CARE: Protect your mental health during a hurricane.

• • •

Rising Threat: A special report on flood risk and climate change

PART 1: The Tampa Bay Times partnered with the National Hurricane Center for a revealing look at future storms.

PART 2: Even weak hurricanes can cause huge storm surges. Experts say people don't understand the risk.

PART 3: Tampa Bay has huge flood risk. What should we do about it?

INTERACTIVE MAP: Search your Tampa Bay neighborhood to see the hurricane flood risk.

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