Hurricane Harvey and the floods that followed were difficult even for adults to handle. We all felt afraid and overwhelmed at times. So did children. They were affected by Hurricane Harvey in a different way than adults. You may have noticed a change in behavior and mood in your child right after the hurricane. Some of these changes may have lasted a while. This article will help you understand the specific way children respond to natural disasters and how to best help them cope with the event.
Here are some common children’s reactions to hurricanes and flooding:
- Difficulty sleeping
- Fear of being alone/separation anxiety
- Acting out
- Crying spells
Young children can be particularly vulnerable to traumatic events such as natural disasters. They have fewer coping skills than adults and no power to take action on their own. They are cognitively and emotionally less developed than adults and they rely on their caregivers to help them cope. If the child’s primary caregiver is unable or unavailable to help the child, the child is more likely to be overwhelmed by a traumatic event.
If you feel that your child has been affected by Hurricane Harvey, here are some suggestions to help your child recover:
- Take Care of Yourself First
Calm yourself down. Slow down and regroup. Children will look up to you for your reactions of fear and concern. You set an example. They are the most sensitive barometers of our moods and tensions. If you are too distressed, you will not be able to effectively calm your child down. Think back to the safety instructions on airplanes: “If there is lack of oxygen in the aircraft, put the mask on yourself before helping a minor.” Remember, take care of yourself so that you can care for your child.
- Stay Together as a Family
Do not separate from your children even long after the hurricane. When children stay with their families and are surrounded by loving and caring adults they do best. They feel emotionally connected and comforted by their parents.
- Help Children Feel Safe
Children need to hear from caregivers and important adults that they will be cared for and kept safe. You can create safety with your tone, your attitude, and your warmth. Children also need to hear that their parents are safe and that their home is safe. If your home flooded or if you know someone whose home was affected reassure your child that a lot of people are helping to make sure that your home is safe again. Talk about specific steps they are taking in rebuilding your home and your community.
- Be Honest
Explain what happened in a way that the child can understand. Children see and hear more than we are aware of. Children will make up their own version of events if adults don’t help them understand the truth. Children can come up with very scary and destructive conclusions as what has happened if they do not hear an explanation from adults.
- Keep It Simple
Children need to know what happened, but they don’t need to know all the shocking details, especially if it will traumatize them. Provide a basic synopsis of what happened according to the child’s developmental level. Wait for the child to ask you before offering more details.
- Ask Your Child About Their Experience
Ask your child to let you know what they saw and what they think is going on. Hear their concerns and their worries so that you can address them. Be patient. The child may ask you the same question many times and may need to hear the same story of what happened numerous times. By asking questions you communicate to your child that you are able to manage the distressing situation. Not talking about what happened can communicate to your child that the event and devastation is too scary to even talk about.
- Help Children Express Their Feelings
Children may need adult help to manage overwhelming feelings. Help children identify and label their feelings. Give them the chance to talk to you about them. This is the first step in ensuring that the perceived trauma does not have a lasting impact on their emotional or mental wellbeing. If you can provide a warm and accepting environment, where they feel safe enough to experience their emotions and talk about them, intense emotions begin to dissipate. Overwhelming feelings become less scary, and even manageable. If these feelings are not expressed and worked through they can lead to behavior problems.
- Offer Your Full Support Even if You Can’t Understand
One of the key things that will help young people overcome traumatic events is the unwavering support of the people they trust. Even if you can’t understand why an event has had such a major impact on a young child, be available to hear and accept your child’s experience. If your child is expressing anger at you, don’t punish him but invite him to tell you what he’s upset about.
- Expect Changes in the Behavior
Younger children express their worries and their sadness in their behavior and play. Older children may become oppositional and difficult to deal with. Children may regress, have temper tantrums and crying spells. Be empathic and understanding but set limits.
If your child seems upset months after Hurricane Harvey that may be the sign that your child hasn’t worked through difficult feelings and may need professional support. A psychologist experienced in working with young children can help your child find ways to express his worries in a safe manner so that he does not have to resort to aggression or acting out.
The good news is it’s never too late to get professional help to teach your child to manage difficult experiences. I have seen many of my younger patients overcome their distress after the hurricane and your child can do the same.
Call Dr. Irena for FREE 10-minute phone consultation at (281)267-1742.