ANNAPOLIS – Ariel Biddle sits outside Annapolis Elementary talking with fellow parent, Amy Daniels, after dropping her children off at school.
Biddle explains that she had a little extra help when answering questions from her 8- and 10-year-old sons about Hurricane Isabel: “The Magic School Bus Inside a Hurricane,” a popular book series where a magic school bus teaches children about different aspects of science.
“They want to know the facts. They wanted to know how it works, their position and speed,” Biddle said. “There’s a bit of nervous excitement, their anticipating the hurricane and we reassure them we’ll be fine.”
Biddle isn’t the only parent or teacher facing the challenge of talking to children about Hurricane Isabel as it inches closer to the coast.
Experts advise reassuring children and explaining what is taking place in an age-appropriate way.
The storm, downgraded Tuesday to a Category 2 hurricane, was expected to make landfall Thursday along North Carolina’s Outer Banks, packing sustained winds of 110 mph with higher gusts, according to the Associated Press.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency urges families to stay together as much as possible, ensure children get enough rest during stressful times before the storm hits and to minimize the event.
Rockville psychologist Michael Stutz recommends parents and teachers give a clear explanation of what a hurricane is, but without too much detail.
“Most importantly you don’t want to alarm them, and make the world seem like a scary place,” said Stutz, who specializes in children and adolescence. “You have to make an assessment of what a child can understand.”
Daniels said her sons, Andrew, 7, and Eric, 9, are also aware of what is going on, but really haven’t asked questions about the storm.
“I don’t think they’re nervous,” said Daniels, whose family will be sleeping in their basement. “It’ll be kind of fun.”
Annapolis Elementary Principal Lisa Leitholf said the children seemed interested and curious, but were not really fearful of the storm.
Leitholf said while the older children were wondering if school would be in session, “it was pretty much a normal day.”
She did have a second grader, whose class was on the third floor, ask if she should worry about classroom flooding.
Listen to the child and be honest and open with them, said psychiatrist Orlando Davis, of the National Mental Health Association Maryland affiliate.
“You don’t want to make this the only thing they’re focused on,” Davis said. “You also have to tell them, ‘We’re not alone and we’re part of a community and a nation.'”
For Kim Johnson, a security guard in Annapolis, her 15-year-old son, Eric Smith, is her major concern. He’s worried, she said, whether she will have to work the night of the storm.
Johnson said she’s told her son that whatever happens they’ll be together.
“He’s afraid something’s going to happen to me,” Johnson said. “He’s old enough to understand what to do when it comes. I just reassure him I’m coming home, which is hard, but I have to.”
Adolescent children may already have stresses on them and may display disruptive behavior during a traumatic time, experts said.
“You have to be more understanding,” Davis said. “You’re getting them to talk through those fears, versus acting them out.”
Experts also say parents and teachers must guard their own fears and emotions during this time because anxiety can be transferred to children.
“Parenting is already difficult,” Davis said. “During this time it can be even more challenging. It can be an important lesson for life, for them as well as for us.”