By Kimberly Davis Guerra
As a mom, I’ve always been big on keeping my kids on a schedule. They, like me, feel secure when they know what to expect and know what is expected of them. When tragedy strikes it can be difficult, even impossible, to keep your normal routine. Back when Hurricane Ike struck, we were all thrown for a loop, but we expected that! Lately, these Soaker Storms have the whole city out of whack! We talked with the experts to see what they suggest to get us all back on track.
According to local child phsychiatrist, Dawnelle J. Schatte, M.D., Assistant Professor Department of Psychiatry at UT-Houston, HCPC she suggests the following top five tips on helping our children deal with the days following any disaster.
- Listen to the kids. They will tell you what they need to know and what they have questions about. We worry so much about what we will tell kids that we may go overboard. Wait until they ask, and answer those questions.
- Check what they are worried about. They often worry about things we would never imagine. For example, they may not realize the storm is not coming back, especially the next time a thunderstorm comes.
- Take care of yourself. If you are feeling stressed or overwhelmed, the child may sense it, but not know why. Reassure your child they did not cause this stress, and don’t be afraid to ask for help (from family, friends, church or social groups).
- Keep the routine as similar as possible. This includes bedtime and making sure they have a favorite toy they sleep with every night.
- Encourage the child to talk about their experiences. With teens this may be difficult with direct questioning, so listen for cues. Try having a conversation when the story comes up on the news. Talk to them while you are in the car or cooking together (or otherwise engaged or distracted), as it is less confrontational.
According to the American Psychiatric Association(APA), hurricanes and other natural disasters are not easy for anyone to comprehend or accept. Understandably, many young children feel frightened and confused. As parents, teachers and caring adults, we can best help by listening and responding in an honest, consistent and supportive manner. Fortunately, most children, even those exposed to trauma, are quite resilient. However, by creating an open environment where they feel free to ask questions, we can help them cope with stressful events and experiences, and reduce the risk of lasting emotional difficulties. Although these may be difficult conversations, they are important.
- Create an open and supportive environment where children know they can ask questions. At the same time, it’s best not to force children to talk about things unless and until they’re ready.
- Give children honest answers and information. Children will usually know, or eventually find out, if you’re “making things up”. It may affect their ability to trust you or your reassurances in the future.
- Use words and concepts children can understand. Gear your explanations to the child’s age, language, and developmental level.
- Be prepared to repeat information and explanations several times. Some information may be hard to accept or understand. Asking the same question over and over may also be a way for a child to ask for reassurance.
- Acknowledge and validate the child’s thoughts, feelings, and reactions. Let them know that you think their questions and concerns are important and appropriate.
- Remember that children tend to personalize situations. For example, they may worry about their own safety and the safety of immediate family members, friends and neighbors.
- Be reassuring, but don’t make unrealistic promises.
- Help children find ways to express themselves. Some children may not want to talk about their thoughts, feelings, or fears. They may be more comfortable drawing pictures, playing with toys, or writing stories or poems.
- Let children know that lots of people are helping the families affected by the storm. It’s a good opportunity to show children that when something scary happens, there are people to help.
- Children learn from watching their parents and teachers. They will be very interested in how you respond to this tragedy. They also learn from listening to your conversations with other adults.
- Don’t let children watch too much television with frightening images. The repetition of such scenes can be disturbing and confusing.
- Children who have experienced trauma or losses in the past are particularly vulnerable to prolonged or intense reactions to news or images of natural disasters. These children may need extra support and attention.
- Monitor for physical symptoms including headaches and stomachaches. Many children express anxiety through physical aches and pains. An increase in such symptoms without apparent medical cause may be a sign that a child is feeling anxious or overwhelmed.
- Children who are preoccupied with questions or concerns about fires or other natural disasters should be evaluated by a trained and qualified mental health professional. Other signs that a child may need additional help include: ongoing sleep disturbances, intrusive thoughts or worries, recurring fears about death, leaving parents or going to school. If these behaviors persist, ask your child’s pediatrician, family physician or school counselor to help arrange an appropriate referral.
- Although parents and teachers may follow the news and the daily events with close scrutiny, many children just want to be children. They’d rather play ball, games or climb trees.
The American Psychiatric Association provides a wealth of information on numerous topics. For more information, visit their website at www.psych.org.