We try to protect our children from as much as we can, but sometimes life has other plans.
Hurricanes in Texas, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Florida have taken over our thoughts, our conversations at home and with friends, the internet, and the television waves. Our children are being bombarded by terrifying pictures on TV, anxious conversations with friends, and worried parents at home. It can be too much for a child to deal with.
Your child’s experience of an event will vary depending on their age, personal style, life experience, and closeness to the disaster. A toddler will only care that his or her parents seem to be upset. Older children will hurt for the people involved, worry about friends and relatives that might be in the areas, and worry that such a thing is possible and could happen to them sometime.
Anxiety can worsen at night: what seems exciting to discuss with friends during the day becomes frightening after the lights go off.
What to Do?
Listen to them talk, and be patient when they ask you the same questions over and over. Reassure them, let them know that such things are extremely rare. Answer questions truthfully, at their developmental level. Never lie.
Monitor what your child sees and hears–adult conversation and the media can magnify fear and confusion and increase their trauma. Repetition can intensify anxiety; pictures can get locked in their heads.
After the storms pass symptoms of post-traumatic stress may appear, even in children not directly involved. They may be sad or moody, easily angered or irritable. They may be afraid to leave home and separate from family. They may have trouble sleeping or sleep too much. Appetites may suffer. Your child may be anxious when his or her people are not all nearby, and wake from nightmares.
Children frequently have concentration problems after a trauma, and their grades may suffer. They can regress developmentally: your independent youngsters may become clingy, or need help doing things they had been previously been able to do on their own. They may avoid activities they previously enjoyed, and withdraw into themselves. They may become anxious at the thought of going to school, or of being separated from mom or dad.
They can also develop physical symptoms like headaches and stomachaches. They may try to exercise more control on their environment, setting up their toys in a particular way, wanting their schedule to be predictable, or demanding activities they find reassuring. Teens may act out or try alcohol or drugs in an attempt to feel better.
Helping them may be as simple as listening. Be available and receptive but don’t push. A younger child may open up and tell you his story when you break out toys or art supplies; an older one may talk if you tell her a similar story about yourself, when you were scared or worried. Schedule time for just the two of you, and wait.
Children may try to hide their symptoms: they think they should be stronger, they don’t want to be a burden, or they think they are abnormal for having the problem. They may even feel that the disaster was their fault; children are not always logical. Allowing them to bury their symptoms will only erode their spirit from the inside.
Also, be a good example. Take care of yourself, eat healthy food, sleep, and discuss events calmly. Turn off the TV and stay off the web. Exercise. Take breaks to play, read a book, and do something unrelated to it.
Keep to recognizable routines–routine is reassuring and safe. Require reasonable behavior: if they still get in trouble for using that bad word, they will feel more secure. They may test you with bad behavior just to get that reassurance. Don’t spoil them with extra treats, because it will frighten them. Things must be really bad if The Parent gives me toys or lets me eat candy.
Lend a hand to other people; even if you are not in the area you can send a donation or give blood. Let them know that you are doing it. It helps to know that you have the power to help and comfort.
The traumatic symptoms may last quite a while. Triggers like another storm season or a news report may bring everything back. Fear of loss may linger. An anniversary will renew their anxiety.
If time passes and stress is affecting their lives, think about having them see a counselor or getting them into a peer group with similar concerns. We all need a little help sometimes.
My mom also used to say, “Time heals all wounds.” And–with a little help from their parents–it always will.