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Health Talk 

Dr. Doug Walker, child psychologist and clinical director at Mercy Family Center, a child outpatient behavioral clinic, knows firsthand the types of questions parents get from their kids during hurricane season. Walker was driving with his children when someone on the radio began talking about the 2007 storm predictions. From the backseat of his truck, Walker's 6-year-old son Ben, asked, "Dad, they're kidding right? They're kidding about the hurricane, right?" Like any caring adult, Walker reassured his son that these were only predictions, but at the same time, the doctor couldn't lie to the boy. Hurricanes and storms are a part of everyone's reality in Louisiana, and, as Walker explains in the following interview, it's up to adults to make children understand they can prepare for that reality and don't need to be fearful.

Q: Have children put Hurricane Katrina behind them?

A: Absolutely not. There's an age at which true memories of the storm probably fade. If you want to argue that the hurricane didn't affect 1 year olds, you could probably do that, but that's not to say they didn't respond to residual stress from their parents and the stressful environment around them. As far as memory of water, rain, wind, TV programs, there's probably an age where that doesn't occur. My opinion is that for pre-school-aged children, 3 to 5 year olds, all hurricanes are going to be Katrina. All major storms are going to be Katrina. It's part of the developmental part of their minds — it's called "magical thinking." They mix fantasy with reality, but that's what they know. It's the parents' job to differentiate fact from fiction.

Q: What if a parent doesn't say anything at all, choosing a "no news is good news" approach?

A: Kids will then make it up. [They think] "If Mommy and Daddy aren't saying anything about it, then it must be bad."

Q: Can parents' anxiety be inadvertently transferred to kids?

A: Absolutely. It can even be transferred to infants. Infants respond to a mother's or caretaker's emotion and physiology. So if you have a tense mother, they're going to respond to that.

Q: So parents need to be honest with kids and give them the facts about an approaching storm, but can there be too much information?

A: You have to ask, What information is helpful? Do we have helpful thoughts? One of the therapies that we use in the classroom level talks about helpful thoughts. You know, "Is what we're thinking about now helpful?" That's what we have to decide as parents. Are we sitting here just sifting through what could happen versus being helpful and saying, "Okay, we need to gather a hurricane kit, we need to put the computer in the car, we need to make phone calls." It's inaction versus action. Parents get caught in their own little whirlwind about these things, and you have to decide what you need to do right now to be helpful to you and your family. Spreading fear and rumor is not going to help you or your kids.

Q: Should parents limit the amount of news coming into the house about an approaching storm?

A: It's not like it's going to sneak up on us. You tune in at noon, 3 p.m. — I don't think kids need to be exposed to it. Again, it's not helpful. It doesn't add anything to their comfort level at all. Letting them know by your own word of mouth like, "Honey, it's a tropical storm, so it's a little bit bigger, and tomorrow we're going to do the plan like we talked about." We're mirrors to our children. If you're going to freak out and get all crazy, kids are going to do the exact same thing. Remain calm.

Q: How can parents or teachers recognize that a child isn't coping well during hurricane season?

A: I would look at changes in behavior. The problem with hurricane season is that teachers won't know their kids well enough to make these kinds of judgments. Not by September, but by October, teachers know their kids. So changes in attention; concentration, which may look like Attention Deficit Disorder; moodiness and fixation. It depends on the age how kids express their stress. If you're talking about school-age children, generally they're going to be irritable and whiny. A lot of aggression — we've seen a lot of bullying since the storm. It may be an avoidance of school, not wanting to go to school because they're separated from their parents. Somatic complaints like headaches and stomachaches.

Q: What kind of treatment is needed?

A: I always recommend that kids don't come to my office. People get confused about this. Kids need to be out playing — they don't need to be in a psychologist's office. The threshold for [psychological counseling] referrals is a significant impairment in functioning; there has to be a line that's crossed. I would think that a school counselor, a teacher-and-parent conversation would be able to come to that decision.

Q: Will Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath eventually become just a memory for kids?

A: I think so. It becomes natural for most of them. It's said that for 80 percent of kids exposed to trauma, if given good support, they will recover spontaneously. That's what we (psychologists) call the resilient child. It's our effort to make sure that the other 20 percent gets there as well.

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