How to Help Your Children Cope in the Wake of a Disaster
How to help your children cope in the wake of a disaster…
Be honest with them
It’s natural to want to shield your children from things that may be upsetting to them, but it is important to maintain trust and honesty with your kids. They will receive filtered down information from many different sources (conversations between adults, news coverage, impressions and experiences from other children) and it is important that they have information that they can trust from the people who they trust most – their parents. If you have been displaced from your home or if you have relatives that are living with you, saying things like “I don’t know when things will go back to normal, but the most important thing is that Mommy and Daddy are going to take care of you and we are all safe” are helpful to encourage an ongoing discussion about changing circumstances. It is ok to let your child know that you don’t have all of the answers, but that they are going to be safe and taken care of regardless of the current hardship.
Maintain a routine
This may seem like an impossibility, but there are a few ways in which you can sustain some semblance of normalcy in the midst of a disaster. It may seem too overwhelming or pointless to get up and get dressed, but for kids it signifies “business as usual.” Sticking to a morning routine of getting up, dressed, and eating breakfast will help kids manage the rest of their day. Additionally, providing children with a job to do helps them to feel needed and gives them purpose. Structure a safe clean up activity for your older children (5 and over) to ensure that they have a sense of accomplishment and feel less helpless. Structuring a task for them will also help to keep active children busy. Finally, keeping a bedtime routine is also important. Try to maintain a schedule of winding down at the end of the day before enforcing a typical bedtime.
Provide a comforting item
During times of stress your children may revert to behaviors that they’ve since grown out of. They may look for a comforting item like a blanket or perhaps a pacifier that they had long since abandoned, or they may want a favorite plush that they sleep with every night. Indulge these desires for the short term. Typically they will abate once your child’s routine goes back to normal. If you are unable to retrieve your child’s preferred item, try to replace it with something similar. It may be difficult for them to accept that their treasure is gone, but sharing a similar experience of you losing your own treasure can be helpful for them to understand that you are all going through this difficult time together.
Express your feelings
Extremes of emotion are not helpful for children to manage their feelings or behaviors. Either stoicism or hysterics are frightening for kids. It is important to let them know how you are feeling in an appropriate manner so that they may have the words to express their own emotions. Saying things like “mommy is scared too” or “daddy feels nervous” can help your child to understand that their own feelings are valid. Activities like drawing a picture of your feelings with your child can help little ones who may have a difficult time expressing themselves verbally. It can also be a bonding and therapeutic task for you to complete together.
Typically, children understand that they are safe and loved via physical touch. Reassure them by giving affection. Deep pressure hugs have an added benefit of being very calming. Be aware that light touch or tickling produces an alerting (or anxiety provoking) response and will usually result in your child increasing their activity level whereas heavy pressure to the muscles and joints will typically decrease your child’s level of alertness.
Acknowledge their fears and reassure them
Don’t dismiss your child’s anxiety or brush them away with platitudes. Saying “it’s fine” or “don’t worry” is not helpful. Allow your child to express their fear and anxiety and let them expand on what exactly they are afraid about. They may be scared that the water will rise again or that they will be separated from their loved ones. Listen to them and provide specific assurances based on their fears.
Limit media coverage
Children may have a hard time understanding that what is happening on TV is not happening live. Replays and stories of what happened during the flood can be confusing for little ones. Unless you need to have information regarding active situations, please unplug and try to relax.
Children who have limited language or who may have language deficits will benefit from visual assistance. You can draw pictures of what happened to your house or you can provide a visual schedule to map out the day’s events for your child. Remember that keeping as much of a schedule as possible is extremely beneficial to manage your child’s behavior and minimize anxiety.
Don’t forget to play
Playing with your children will be mutually beneficial. It’s hard to remember during clean up and restoration efforts, but play and relaxation are essential for management of stress and anxiety. Carve out a few minutes several times a day to engage in playful tasks with your child.
Manage your own stress
One of the best analogies for parenthood is as follows: in an airplane emergency when the oxygen masks come down, it is directed that the parent places their mask on first before assisting their child. In any potentially dangerous situation, you have to ensure your safety so that you are able to ensure the safety of others. Take a break from cleaning to go for a run or take a bath or bake cookies. Do the things that facilitate your health and happiness so that you can provide those same comforts for your child.