Hurricane Fears: How to Talk to Kids

As Irene barrels toward the East Coast, pressure on parents mounts.

Aug. 26, 2011— -- Lindsey Mead Russell's 8-year-old daughter, Grace, has been tracking Hurricane Irene's every move since Wednesday.

"She's constantly asking what category it is," said Russell, who lives in Boston. "Her understanding of this storm is actually surprising."

Hurricane Irene continues to hurdle toward the East Coast, forcing families along the East Coast to brace for ferocious winds and torrential rain.

This morning, Grace woke up early to see the latest on Irene's force and path. Hurricane Irene, which was downgraded this morning to a Category 2 storm, is expected to reach Boston Sunday night.

"I told her we have a lot of time to get ready for it. And she said, 'Well, actually mom, that makes it worse. There's so much time to worry about it,'" Russell said.

The National Hurricane Center has urged the 65 million people in Irene's path to prepare for the worst -- a plea that weighs heavily on parents with nervous kids.

"To the extent that parents can convey a relatively calm and in-charge persona to children, the better they're going to do," said Rahil Briggs, a clinical psychologist at Montefiore Medical Center and assistant professor of pediatrics at Albert Einstein College in New York. "That's really the strongest cue, even stronger than the news."

Media coverage has climbed steadily since Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts declared states of emergency -- a decision that allows them to tap into national resources.

"We know that the news can lead to serious anxiety in children -- even if they're watching it with a parent," said Alan Kazdin, a professor of psychology and director of Yale University's Parenting Center and Child Conduct Clinic. "A little is fine, but not too much."

Kazdin said parents should answer kids' questions about the hurricane directly and without embellishing.

"That's true with questions about sex, and it's true with questions about hurricanes," he said. "I wouldn't hide anything, but I wouldn't elaborate either."

Maintaining routines and rituals can help comfort children through the commotion. And a little distraction, such as playing a board game, can go a long way in soothing storm-related anxiety.

"If the power goes out, I guess we'll sit around and play cards," said Russell, whose 6-year-old son, Whit, "couldn't care less" about Irene. "Whatever [Grace] wants to do will be fine with us!"

Hurricane Fears: Keeping Kids Calm

When kids are frightened, physical touch can reassure them that they're safe.

"For some children, there's nowhere they'd rather be than on Dad's lap or in Mom's arms. For others, just being in the same room might be enough," said Briggs. "It's really about knowing your child and providing the comfort they need during times of stress."

After the storm passes, talking to kids about its effects on the community can help put things in perspective.

"They get bits and pieces when it's happening, but it doesn't flow into a whole chain of events," said Briggs. "Giving them the narrative of what happened can help them understand it and put it in context."

And if there's damage in the community, helping the clean-up effort as a family can help close the book on the storm.

"I look forward to going out for a walk on Monday and saying, 'Yeah, these tree branches are down and we might not have power, but we're fine," said Russell.