How to Help Children in the Aftermath of Hurricane

Sad child on black background. Portrait depression girlWe 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.

How to Use Mindfulness to Help Your Child

boy with baloon2-01Mindfulness has become mainstream. The InnerKids Foundation in LA has been teaching mindfulness to inner city kids since 2001. The Goldie Hawn Foundation sponsors a program called MindUp that has trained thousands of teachers. In all likelihood, mindfulness is coming to a school near you, with very good reason. Mindfulness works.

MindUP has shown a 90% increase in children’s ability to get along with other children; an 80% increase in optimism; and a 75% improvement in planning, organizational skills, and  impulse control when kids practice. Several studies have shown that mindfulness practice brings a sense of well being and decrease in stress.

Our world has gone crazy, and our children are having problems with anxiety, stress, depression, and the resultant physical symptoms: stomach aches, headaches, and chronic tiredness. Anxious, stressed out kids build stories in their minds that circle, grow, and separate them from what is real and manageable. Mindfulness can help.

What is mindfulness?

Mindfulness is a meditation practice that we in the west have stolen from the Buddhists and warped to our own purposes. Through mindfulness practice a child can achieve a state of mind where they aware, focused on the present, and calmly accepting of  themselves and the world around them, without judgement.

Does this not sound like exactly what we want for our kids? Kids who learn to practice mindfulness have in their arsenal a tool that will help them deal with anxiety, stress, impulsiveness, and any number of damaging emotions–with no side effects and at the bargain price of free. No need to join a religion, and anyone can learn it.

How do we do it?

There are many internet sites that can lead you through mindfulness practice with your kids. I particularly like Renee Jain, MAPP, but there are many out there. There is even an iPhone app! The basics are really very simple:

  • First and most important, do it with your child.
  • Find a peaceful, quiet place, sit comfortably (the crossed leg/hands on knee thing is optional).
  • Focus on awareness of one thing.
  • Notice that thing–a sight, or sound, or feeling-any one thing.
  • Acknowledge that thing, then let the thought drift away, without judgement.

Babies are naturals at mindfulness. Stick mushed peaches in their mouths and they will taste them, look at them on their hands, rub them all over their faces, and smell them. They are in the moment and focused on those peaches. We can learn a lot from babies.

Older kids need to be brought back to that sort of focus. Sit with them in a quiet, comfortable place, and guide them to think about one thing. Use something they can hear (a bell or a shaker?) or taste, or smell. Teach them to notice that thing, then let that notice float away. Be aware and focused, but don’t try to conclude anything about what they are focused on and don’t pass judgement. Just hear, or see, or smell-and then let it go.

As kids get older, they can learn more traditional meditation techniques: breath coming into and going out, awareness of their bodies and of passing thoughts, and letting go so that they can be in the next moment, without attachment to what is passed and gone.

There is no one right way to meditate: the point is to be peaceful and live, for that time, in the present without attachment and without judgement. People meditate by arranging sand, by doing yoga, by coloring, by going fishing–whatever works for you and your child.

Why practice mindfulness?

Meditation can teach kids how to break the spiraling cycle of anxiety; how to develop a more positive and optimistic viewpoint; how to live without pronouncing judgement on everything they encounter, and on themselves. It can help them feel better about themselves and learn to regulate their emotions and impulses.

Imagine your child coming home stressed because someone was mean, they have too much homework, or they are last picked for a team. Imagine if they could find a quiet place, trace that stress to its origin, transform it into a color or a breeze in their minds– and let it go.

Better than sitting, stewing in the stress, and letting it spiral and grow until it takes over their evening, yes?

Create a habit of daily meditation.

Take a few minutes every evening and make meditation a routine–maybe right before homework or bed? Reward them for practicing with a hug or a few minutes more of your time, as you reward any behavior of which you want to see more.

Mindfulness is a skill, like riding a bike. If your child practices every day, when he or she needs it they won’t have to think about how to get their feet onto the pedals and make the bike roll forward. It will just be there for them.

Mindfulness works. Mindfulness practice has been shown to improve kids’ coping skills and their sense of well being. It can improve memory and learning by teaching them to pay attention and focus. It can teach them to be aware of their feelings, accept them, and then let them go, so that they can make wise decisions with their minds rather than poor ones based on overwhelming emotions. They can learn to self regulate and control their own emotions and actions.

Give it a try. Everyone can use a few minutes of peace in their day.

DomesticatedMomster
The Blogger's Pit Stop