As Oklahomans, we are grieving about the damage from the recent tornadoes. Here are some suggestions to help your children deal with the acute stress even in the midst of continued bad weather:
Give Hugs: Elementary aged children are calmed by the reassurance that their parent is near, and physical closeness restores a sense of safety. Be patient with a regression to more “childlike” almost babyish behavior and speech. This is part of how young bodies and minds heal from extreme stress. For less cuddly kids, a gentle pat or back rub might be welcome.
Spend Time: Separation anxiety is likely to peak when a disaster involves the death of children. Although this may seem obvious, it can sometimes catch parents off guard when their child becomes whiney and clingy when the parent wants to run an errand, or at bedtime. Take extra steps to say goodbye before you leave your child, or consider bringing them with you for a short while. Enhance your typical bed time routine with an extra book or special prayers to ease the separation until morning.
Stay Healthy: Stress eating doesn’t start in adulthood. Teach your child to manage stress through healthy eating and exercise. Good food and long walks or bike rides are part of the basics of bounce back from stress.
Be Truthful: Your child needs to hear from YOU about the tornado and that children died; Not the news, and not from friends. If you are withholding this truth your child will assume that you are fragile and will then be reluctant to burden you with their own fears. Resist the urge to over-expose yourself to television coverage, it may increase your anxiety and make you less available to your child’s needs.
Actively Listen: Monitor your own stress and listen carefully to the anxiety of your child. Do not accelerate his/her fears, and do not deny or belittle their fears. Even though at this moment there is no tornado activity, children will re-experience their fear multiple times as they remember what happened. These feelings are intense and very real to them. Reassurance of “you are safe now, we are safe now, we will be okay” will help moderate the intensity. Repeat as often as necessary for your child.
Encourage Play: After a tornado children will recreate tornados with toys – smashing things up and knocking them down. This is NORMAL, although disturbing. You do not have to direct play but do not stop it. This is one of the ways that children develop mastery over the experience. It is a healthy expression of the power of the storm, when they are not feeling powerful. Let your child play, draw, or talk. This is how the experience becomes more manageable.
Develop Plans: Review the information about how to keep safe during tornado season. Do a dry run and shop for new books, games, and flashlights for your safe place/shelter. Make it clear to your child that information is important but that you will lead them if there is a need to seek shelter. Make a clear plan with your child about how future tornados during the school day will be handled. Will you pick your child up? Will you ask your child to stay calm so he/she can follow the teacher’s directions? Plans provide comfort; uncertainty sparks insecurity during times of stress. Your child needs to know you have faith that the teacher will keep them safe if you are not there.
Watch Carefully: Following a natural disaster you should expect temporary changes in your child’s mood and behavior with intermittent returns to typical patterns. If your child demonstrates extended separation anxiety, difficulties with sleep, aggressive behavior, or changes in personality lasting for more than two weeks, please seek counseling support.
Help Others: There are ways to reach out to the families that are most affected by the recent storm. Do not go to the disaster site with your child, but help him/her to help others through buying materials or writing cards and deliver them to a care center. Responding to the need of others is a concrete way of restoring normalcy when internally we are feeling out of control. It is also kind. [Click here for MetroFamily's list of ways to help those in need.]
As Oklahomans we know how to be kind. It is what we do.
Dr. Lisa Marotta is a Clinical/School Psychologist in private practice in Edmond, Oklahoma. When I am not doing feelings work or at home with my family I am writing books for parents, children, and young adults.