How to Help Kids Adjust to Hurricane Displacements

Q: We were affected by Hurricane Harvey. Our house flooded by a few inches, and we had to relocate until we’re able to redo some parts of our house. My husband, 24-month old son, and I are currently living with my sister.

I noticed my son started sucking his finger a lot more and is a bit more clingy than usual. Is there anything I can do to help him during this transition? He also has his own room here, but since the move, we have been sleeping with him. When do we transition him to sleeping back on his own without heightening the anxiety? Thank you!

A: First of all, kudos on trying to establish as normal a situation as you can with your toddler. In 2003, my husband and I, along with our nearly 1-year-old daughter, had to relocate to my in-laws’ home after Hurricane Isabel dropped a tree through our home, so I do understand the stress of leaving home quickly and trying to figure out how to get the house fixed, all while raising a toddler. We ended up living with my in-laws for five months while our house was put back together, so we went through much of what you’re experiencing in transitioning to temporary housing situations in less-than-ideal conditions.

Kids pick up on our anxiety, which is probably why he’s sucking his finger more and being clingy. He doesn’t understand what happened, only that mom and dad are not acting like usual. What worked for us is establishing as normal a routine as you can, including moving him to sleep in his own bed in his own room. There might be a few nights of some crying (just go in and reassure, but try not to pick him up—pat on back, maybe sing a song, etc.

Try to ensure he’s napping as usual and has plenty of time to run around/use up his energy during the day. If you have to meet with people to discuss your house repairs, make sure you bring toys or books or things for him to play with. Also try to stick to his regular diet as much as possible–when we eat well and sleep well, things are generally better all around (and this goes for mom and dad, too).

The more calm you can act, the less anxious he’ll be—a tall order, I know! But remember: children are very resilient and he’ll soon settle into the new environment and routine fairly quickly.

For older children, try not to discuss too much of the situation within their earshot, as too much information can bred confusion and anxiety. But do keep them informed with regular updates as to what’s being done and what to expect in the coming days or weeks.

Also, try to incorporate as much normalcy as possible with family celebrations, trips and/or outings already on the calendar. Another tall order, but that can help to make life seem just a bit off track and not completely derailed.

If your family’s situation isn’t too dire, consider volunteering or helping others in worse straits if possible. A morning spent helping someone shovel mud out of their home when yours only had water damage can help keep things in perspective.

Handling Toddler Fears

Q: My 14-month-old son recently started acting scared of dogs and other things, such as certain toys. He has always been sensitive to sudden loud noises, which has worsened recently. He is fine with our dog, who is very little. But any other dog he starts crying hysterically. Additionally, he has started screaming when I drop him off at church or our gym’s nursery and usually doesn’t stop until I return. Up until a couple of weeks ago, he never resisted being left. Should we continue exposing him to all these things or try to limit any of them in any way?

A: Rest assured this is very typical behavior for a toddler. While it might last for weeks, he will grow out of it. I would tell the nursery workers to come get you if he doesn’t settle down after 10 minutes, so you’ll have to be prepared to have your activities curbed by his screaming for a short time.

Image courtesy of Serge Bertasius Photography/
Image courtesy of Serge Bertasius Photography/

Why does this happen around this age? No one knows for sure, but having gone through similar behavior with all four of my kids, my own explanation is that it relates to growing. Toddlers grow a lot, both mentally and physically, and sometimes I think it all become too much for them to handle, so they get clingy, cry when being left at places that used to not bother them, and develop phobias of animals or other things that previously didn’t merit a second glance.

There’s nothing to be gained by forcing a child this age to “deal with” his fear of dogs, so simply avoid other dogs (don’t make him pet them—just remove him from the vicinity). My two boys had a morbid fear of dogs and people wearing costumes (think Easter Bunny and Santa Claus), to the point that they would scream hysterically and practically climb up us to get away from the costumed person or dog. They eventually outgrew those fears, but at the time, we comforted and left when encountering those things.

Mom’s follow up:

Thank you very much for your answer to my question regarding my 14-month-son being clingy and fearful. Your advice was very helpful. We have made it through church nursery the past two weeks after a brief amount of crying! And I appreciate your reassurance as well.