Talking With Your Children After Hurricane Harvey
by Sarah Kinsworthy, Ph.D., LPC-S, RPT, EMDR Trained Therapist
Returning to a sense of normalcy seems to be the goal following a natural disaster, but it may be more difficult than most realize. When disaster occurs, adults are left to wade through the aftermath struggling to achieve simple tasks that were taken for granted just days before. Some are left homeless, or worse; some are struggling to financially survive post-crisis while others are left in a mental fog that challenges daily routines for living. Others experience survivors guilt (that they’re OK while family and friends are not), and many struggle with anxiety and other overwhelming emotions. So what about the children? Are they reacting differently? Is it normal for them to act different after experiencing these life altering experiences? How are parents and caregivers able to help?
Identify the feelings.Children under the age of 11 are not developmentally able (typically) to conceptualize emotion fully. For many adolescents, they are inexperienced at verbalizing their feelings normally, and are even more challenged when overwhelmed with the emotions post-disaster. As parents and caregivers, it is important for us to help children identify their feelings by paying attention to their body language and then verbalizing our observations. When a child is tearful and “clingy”, we can validate their emotions by saying that they seem worried. If a child has drooped body language (e.g., hunched shoulders) and appears down, we can verbalize that they seem sad. Identifying the child’s feelings helps the child learn the language that is connected with their emotional experience empowering them to better manage what is going on internally.
Take some time to process the events.
Processing a traumatic event can include talking with friends, writing in a diary, or talking with a mental health professional. Support groups are often available in areas affected by major disasters. The use of social media provides useful ways to connect with friends and family and share your experiences if you do not have access to in-person support.
Expect the behaviors. In the days following a disaster, it is normal for a child to cry frequently, become easily frustrated, have difficulty sleeping possibly due to nightmares, experience a change in appetite, become “clingy” to a caregiver, act angry or aggressive, experience stomach aches, headache’s, shakiness, appear hyperactive, and even possibly have flashbacks of the event. Some children will exhibit all of the symptoms while others appear to have moved past the event as if nothing ever took place. As parents and caregivers, it is important for us to normalize these feelings for a child regardless of how they present themselves. To normalize means to let the child know that all of the aforementioned symptoms are completely normal in response to the crisis they’ve just experienced.
Develop a plan for support. When symptoms arise as a result of a traumatic event, it is important for parents and caregivers to develop a plan to support children through the recovery process. Stress reduction techniques like diaphragmatic breathing or “belly breaths”, progressive relaxation, and scanning the body for tension can all be easily taught to young children. When used consistently, these techniques, and others, can aid in the reduction of symptoms. Some children will need to receive help from mental health professionals such as school counselors, play therapists, and psychiatrists. If a child’s symptoms persist beyond six months from the date of the event, consider seeking the help of a professional. Therapists trained in trauma can effectively respond with interventions such as play therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR).
Model Self-Care. Self-care is imperative after a traumatic event. Parents and caregivers can model self-care to children by ensuring that they themselves eat a healthy diet, get enough sleep, normalize their own feelings, seek support from family/friends/professionals, take time for themselves (when able), and do things that they enjoy. We can also teach children to practice self-care by returning children to a routine, when possible. Creating a schedule and posting it somewhere visible to the child can re-introduce stability.
While returning to normalcy may be difficult, it is possible.