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September 8, 2011

CONTACT: Lauren Kidd
Press Office: 609-633-8507

DCF and DHS Offer Mental Health Tips Following Hurricane Irene
Advice to help kids and their families work through events like hurricanes,
9/11, and returning to school

Following Hurricane Irene, officials with the New Jersey Departments of Children and Families (DCF) and Human Services (DHS) recognize that as people work to address basic needs like housing, food, and medical care, it is also important to pay attention to the mental health needs of everyone, including children. 

“Children are affected by events like Hurricane Irene in many ways.  They can cause stress, anxiety, fear, and sadness. This can be further complicated for young people who may also be dealing with the stress of going back to school and for those older youth who have been personally affected by 9/11,” said DCF Commissioner Allison Blake.  “The good news is that children are amazingly resilient and providing some simple supports, including an empathic ear, can help children cope and successfully navigate their way through stressful times.” 

“The personal feeling of loss or uncertainty that accompanies storms of this magnitude, can leave children and families with an emotional toll,” said DHS Commissioner Jennifer Velez. “Families in need of counseling or other mental health services, should call 1-877-294-HELP (4357) and for TTY 1-877-294-4356 and the Mental Health Association in New Jersey will connect families with counseling or other mental health services in their local area.”

Knowing what to expect is the first step to helping a child, according to Jeffrey Guenzel, Director of the Division of Child Behavioral Health within DCF. There are many normal responses to stressful events like hurricanes. These vary depending on the child’s age and development.  Normal responses include: 

  • Disbelief and shock
  • Fear and anxiety about the future
  • Difficulty making decisions or concentrating
  • Apathy and emotional numbing
  • Nightmares and reoccurring thoughts about the event
  • Irritability and anger
  • Sadness
  • Feeling powerless
  • Changes in eating patterns; loss of appetite or overeating
  • Crying for “no apparent reason”
  • Non-specific physical complaints
  • Difficulty sleeping or falling asleep
  • Fear of being alone
  • Increased anxiety associated with wind, storms, or water.
  • School avoidance
  • Withdrawing from peers

*All of these responses are normal and may occur for short periods of time following a disaster.  If any of these problems continue for any extended period, it may be best to seek professional assistance. 

According to Guenzel, the second step is about being there for children. He says that the two most important things a caregiver can do for children are to provide the safest environment possible and listen to them. 

“Children of all ages need to feel safe and they turn to the caregivers in their lives to help provide that safety,” said Guenzel. “This is often where people excel.  We understand the need for safety and work to protect our children. The listening is the skill that may take a little more work, but it can have wonderful effects by decreasing traumatic responses long term and increasing resiliency.”

Guenzel advises that caregivers should let children express their concerns and fears.  For younger children, this may be done more through play and drawing than talking, but a caregiver’s willingness to listen to that form of communication as well can have a lasting positive impact. 

Guenzel offers these additional tips on helping your child cope with the stress of the hurricane:

  • Be as calm as possible around your children.  That sense of calmness can really help.  You can share your own fears and concerns in basic terms, but try to avoid “venting” your own emotions with your children.  Try to find another supportive adult to “vent” your emotions.
  • Following a disaster, children need reassurance that they are safe.  Provide that reassurance, however it needs to be honest, not a false sense of reassurance.  Avoid telling them that a disaster will never happen again, rather reassure them that adults are working hard to protect them and focus on the positive things your family did to get through the disaster.
  • Be honest and open, but keep it simple.  Don’t get into needless detail about the disaster.  Too much information can be confusing and can raise anxiety.  At the same time, children can often sense when information is being hidden from them.  So, be honest, but keep it simple.
  • Maintain your daily routines as best as possible.  Once you get past the first few days of managing the disaster, work towards getting back to your children’s normal activities as best as possible.
  • Be aware that your children get information from other sources such as friends and the media.  Encourage them to talk with you about what they hear.  This not only gives them a chance to talk about it, it also gives you a chance to dispel bad information that they may believe is true.
  • Manage the amount of information about the hurricane your child is exposed to in the media.  Viewing images or hearing descriptions of the hurricane and its aftermath may only heighten a child’s anxiety. For example, a young child may not understand that media footage of collapsing buildings or distraught victims are replays of an event, and may think that a new hurricane has arrived.
  • Respect and take the time to listen to your child’s feelings, thoughts and reactions, even if they are different from your own.
  • Keep in mind that feelings and thoughts of other events your child may have experienced, such as 9/11, may come back up during this time.  Also, the stress of going to school and being away from home can create anxiety for some children. Again, listening and talking with them about this can be very helpful, while also supporting them getting back into their normal routine of going to school and learning.

Finally, caregivers should seek additional help if needed.  If a child seems “stuck” and keeps focusing on the hurricane, can not seem to get past the anxiety or sadness, is having trouble sleeping, or is having any continued problems with their daily lives, seek professional help.  Talk with your pediatrician or seek out a mental health professional directly.  Obtaining professional help as soon as you recognize that your child is having trouble dealing with the effects of a disaster can aid in their recovery.  To obtain services for a child through the New Jersey Division of Child Behavioral Health Services, please contact 1-877- 652-7624.

A Quick Reference Guide to Hurricane Recovery is available on the DHS website with phone contact and website resources that are relevant to storm-impacted children and families. The guide can be accessed through this link:

The Department of Children and Families (DCF), New Jersey’s state child welfare agency, was created in July 2006 as the state’s first Cabinet agency devoted exclusively to serving and safeguarding the most vulnerable children and families in New Jersey. DCF includes the Division of Youth and Family Services, Division of Prevention and Community Partnerships and Division of Child Behavioral Health Services, and is focused on strengthening families and achieving safety, well-being and permanency for New Jersey's children.