Karen Overstreet, Merrill, Thomas A.
"The hurricanes aren’t coming back, are they?" a preschooler shyly asked of his teacher.
That question demonstrates the fears and uncertainty faculty members in the LSU AgCenter and the LSU School of Human Ecology have been trying to combat for the past two years.
Researchers, specialists and other faculty members in those various LSU System units are working to find ways parents, teachers and others can help children overcome such fears – fears that have intensified since hurricanes Katrina and Rita struck Louisiana during the 2005 hurricane season.
"This is something children deal with on an everyday basis," said LSU AgCenter family life specialist Dr. Karen Overstreet, who also serves as the interim division head for family, child and consumer sciences in the LSU School of Human Ecology. "We were in a restaurant the other night when a thunderstorm blew up, and there were children saying, ‘Is it a hurricane?’
"Children see things about hurricanes almost every day since hurricanes Katrina and Rita. We, as adults, have to help them learn how to cope with their fears."
Overstreet and other experts say the problem is that children generally don’t have the life experience to sort out what’s really a threat to them and what isn’t.
"It’s important for parents to know how to talk to children about things like hurricanes, so children will understand," said LSU AgCenter family life specialist Dr. Diane Sasser.
Working on such issues as helping children cope with their fears is nothing new for family life and child care experts, but Katrina and Rita made the needs much more obvious, the experts say.
A team of graduate students and faculty members working in the LSU Child Development Laboratory Preschool in the School of Human Ecology almost immediately noticed how much attention the 3- and 4-year-olds in their care were paying to news events and other things they saw in the wake of the 2005 hurricanes. They even noticed how the children were incorporating things related to the hurricanes into their play time.
As a result, the team of experts looked for even more creative ways to help the children cope with fears and emotions related to the storms.
Among those was a visit to an LSU AgCenter demonstration home in Baton Rouge, known as LaHouse, which is designed to be a showcase of stronger, safer and smarter construction techniques. Built for the unique climate and conditions of South Louisiana, the house already was under construction prior to the 2005 storms, so it offered a chance to show children how their homes might protect them.
In just one example of helping the children relate, the familiar fairy tale of the three little pigs was mixed with the story of LaHouse to provide an analogy to which the preschoolers could relate – that neither Katrina nor the big bad wolf could blow the roof off LaHouse.
"We thought that having the children study the hurricanes was an important part of helping them understand what was going on in their lives," said Carol Aghayan, an instructor in the Laboratory Preschool. "We know it’s OK to talk to children about things that may be scary – as long as it’s done in a developmentally appropriate way."
Although the original work came with the 20 preschoolers involved during 2005-06, the need for helping children face their fears as best they can is an ongoing project for the experts.
"We don’t know what the long-term effects will be for the children whose lives have been affected by the storms," said Dr. Diane Burts, who served as the division head for family, child and consumer sciences in the LSU School of Human Ecology at the time of hurricanes Katrina and Rita. "But we certainly know we are looking at helping them the best ways we can."
Overstreet, who now fills the position Burts held before retirement earlier this year, echoed that sentiment.
"Whether it’s hurricanes or other things children may fear, what we want to do is find out the best ways to help them cope with those fears – and then to share that knowledge with parents and others in their lives," Overstreet said.
For more information on the variety of family life and child care initiatives of the LSU AgCenter, visit www.lsuagcenter.com. For more information on the LSU Child Development Laboratory Preschool, go to www.preschool.huec.lsu.edu.
Other Tips From LSU AgCenter Experts
On Helping Children Cope With Fears About Storms: