In thinking about what I would blog about this month, how could I think of anything else but how children in our region are doing following the devastation of tropical storm Irene? While the clean-up is well underway, the medical and psychological after-effects of the storm are going to be with us for some time. Thus I thought I might remind everyone of some of the potential issues that could occur for our children as a result of the storm so that we are on guard to prevent these problems from happening.
First, medically, it is important that while children may want to help with the cleanup, they should not. It is too risky. Cleanup sites have increased potential exposure to toxins like lead, asbestos, and mold which can be very harmful to children (as well as adults). In addition, kids are apt to trip, fall, or injure themselves, exposing their open skin to germs that are present from sewage or standing water from the flooding and rain that has occurred. If your children want to help, they can donate food, clothing, and toys to families who lost these things, but they should not be present at cleanup sites.
Parents, don’t forget to take precautions as well. If you are volunteering to help clean up, then wear appropriate equipment as recommended by our Health Department including special respirator masks, goggles, hats, work gloves, long sleeves, long pants, and work boots with shoe covers, and remove all clothing and shower well before you hug or come in contact with your children. I cannot emphasize the importance of good hand washing if you are in an area that has been hit by the storm and are coming indoors from being outdoors in these areas.
Even if your child has not been directly affected by Irene, they are seeing the images, and these can be disturbing for a child. They may be scared, and worried that it could happen again, that they or someone they love will be injured or killed or simply become separated from them. Your child may not say these things – but could show it in their behavior or actions. For example they may be withdrawn, aggressive, have trouble eating, sleeping, or doing their homework.
If you sense your child is not himself or herself, or better yet to prevent these abnormal behaviors from happening, sit down with your children as a family and ask them to share their concerns about the storm. Ask if they are still scared, listen to their questions and concerns, and then reassure them they are safe and the family is together. Keep family routines as normal as possible. The more you can maintain regular family activities, the better.
You may not want to watch the news when your children are around if the pictures are of the storm and its aftermath are too disturbing, or watch it with them so you can explain what is happening. Perhaps have them watch the ever-increasing good news stories that we are seeing as more and more as communities come together to rebuild and make our towns safer for all of us. Try to say calm yourselves in front of your children, even if you are stressed, to help your child stay reassured that things will be okay going forward.
If you find your child is still not acting like himself or herself as we get a month or two out from the storm, please talk to your child’s doctor who in rare circumstances may recommend counseling to help your child deal with the traumatic stress they are experiencing.
If parents keep their children away from cleanup sites, and spend more family time with their children reassuring them of their safety, I can’t think of a better way for families and communities to right now be “First with Kids”!
Lewis First, M.D., is chief of Pediatrics at Vermont Children’s Hospital at the University of Vermont Medical Center and chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the Larner College of Medicine at UVM. You can also catch “First with Kids” weekly on WOKO 98.9FM and WPTZ Channel 5, or visit the First with Kids video archives at http://www.uvmhealth.org/firstwithkids.