Tips for helping children cope with the recent disaster
Make children feel comfortable asking questions and sharing their feelings. Let your children talk with you about what happened. Help your children identify feelings they may be having, and let them know it’s ok to feel that way. When children can talk and don’t have to act out their feelings through their behavior, often their behavior improves.
Help your children feel safe. Focus both on how safe your children feel and their actual physical safety (what to do if there is another tornado, where they can go that will be safe, etc.) Young children feel safe when you hold them. All children feel safe when they have predictable routines (regular meals, schedules, and consistent rules) and know what is going to happen next.
Keep your information as simple as possible, based on your child’s age, understanding, and developmental level. Some young children think that the traumatic event is happening over and over again when they continue to see reruns of the news, so consider limiting your child’s exposure to repeat viewings of the event.
Some children may ask the same questions over and over. This isn’t because they forgot what you told them. This is simply their way of learning about what happened and how to make sense of it. They need you to answer the same questions over and over, as patiently and lovingly as possible. They need time to think about the things that have happened to them and to their friends, bit by bit, because they can’t handle it all at once.
It’s important that children feel heard and understood, but be careful not to promise them that there won’t be another tornado or some other bad thing. As much as we want to protect our children, we shouldn’t make promises we can’t keep; children tend to know when we aren’t being truthful with them and then may feel that they can’t trust us to tell them the truth.
You can assure them that you and their other caretakers (teachers, childcare workers, and family members) are doing everything possible to keep them safe. Let them think of ways they can also help and do some preparation for future emergencies. This can be very empowering for kids when everything else seems big, scary, and out of their control.
Kids are amazingly resilient but watch for signs your child is feeling overwhelmed or anxious. Kids don’t often say they’re stressed; they say their tummies hurt, that they can’t sleep, or that they don’t want to eat or play with friends as usual.
Anything that brings up scary memories, such as a big storm or wind, may trigger bigger feelings, and since this disaster happened while many slept, you can expect some big fears at bedtime. A trained, qualified mental health professional can help you and your child find ways to cope with these fears.
Some kids may not want to talk about their feelings, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t anxious about the things going on around them. Other ways kids can discharge their feelings include:
* Physical activity
* Drawing pictures, painting, or coloring
* Playing with play-doh or toys
* Writing stories or about their feelings
* Putting together puzzles
Parents and caregivers, take care of yourselves so that you can be there for your children! Talk to friends or family members, take time for yourself and do things that you enjoy, eat well, and get enough sleep. Allow yourself to feel sadness and grief, but try to return to a normal routine. If you feel very overwhelmed, try to take small steps to deal with large problems. The trauma experts from NCTSN say, “Many adults feel guilty about focusing on or taking care of themselves, but remember your children feel happiest when they know that you are ok.”
Remember that your children are watching you and the other adults in their life to learn how to cope with their big emotions. If you are scared or upset, they will be scared or upset. If you are able to stay calm, take care of yourself, and look for ways to help others, so will they. If your child saw you get upset, don’t be afraid to talk about it. It is ok to admit that you were scared or upset. Help your child to see that you are doing better now, that you are strong, and that you will do all you can to keep your family safe.
-Much of this information comes from the very useful and informative Parent Guide at the end of the coloring book, “Trinka and Sam: The Swirling Twirling Wind”.
• NCTSN.org – information about children, tornadoes, and trauma
• FEMA– Tornado information for children
• Science Kids: Tornado facts for kids
• Sesame Street – Let’s Get Ready! Planning Together for Emergencies with tips, activities, and other tools to help the whole family prepare for emergencies (both in English and Spanish)
• Redcross.org- Tornado safety tips, information about how to prepare, respond and recover after a tornado
• WeatherWizKids.com– information about tornadoes for the school-age child