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  • Dr. Roseanne Lesack

Supporting Your Children in the Aftermath of a Storm

I finally came home today (Wednesday) after a long week. My family and I were directly in the projected path of Hurricane Irma in South Florida. We made a quick decision, based on a number of factors, to drive up to Atlanta and ride out the storm with close friends. We quickly packed up a week’s worth of clothes, grabbed photo albums and important documents, and closed up our house as best as possible. A trip that generally takes 9-10 hours under normal circumstances, took over 16. But we were lucky, it took friends, who left just a few hours after us, over 20 hours. We were also fortunate that we did not have to wait in any of the around-the-block gas lines.

Unfortunately, Irma decided to follow us up to Atlanta, where we lost electricity at my host family’s house (strangely enough, electricity in my Florida home stayed intact throughout the hurricane) and pine trees were falling like toothpicks (including on a car from a South Florida evacuee). We came back to our house and community today lucky beyond belief. Even though our house does not have any substantial hurricane protection, we had absolutely no damage to our home. However, many in our community did have minor damage such as fallen trees, detached roof shingles, and continue to be without electricity after four days of 90 degree Florida humidity. For most of us in South Florida, school is closed at least until Monday, if not longer. And we are fully aware of how much worse it could have been for us, knowing the devastation that impacted so many in the Caribbean and the Florida Keys.

As the days slowly pass and everyone begins to piece their lives back together, there are some important aspects that parents should consider to help children adjust during these types of life challenges. Although these suggestions are geared for immediate post-hurricane families, they can also be helpful after any type of jarring life event, like a loss in the family or a major family transition.

Focus on people, not things

This was said quite a bit on the news when officials were trying to encourage those in the evacuation zones to leave. It is true that things can be replaced, people cannot. Of course, this may be difficult for some children to internalize, especially if they have lost significant tangible items, such as their home or meaningful keepsakes. But the supportive love of family and friends can be such a crucial source of support and should be talked about in a developmentally appropriate manner, depending on your children’s age.

Practice gratitude

Finding at least one thing to be thankful for each and every day fosters hope and positivity. This can be something existentially robust, such as being thankful for being alive, or importantly small, such as a hug from a friend. Take the time to sit and ask your children what they are thankful for on a daily basis to help them refocus on what they have and not on what they have lost.

Allow your children to experience the range of their emotions

Just like adults, it is ok for your children to be upset, sad, angry, happy, nervous, excited, and scared. All of these feelings are absolutely appropriate and it is normal for them to rapidly rotate through emotions. During stressful situations, children are trying to figure out how they feel and how to express those emotions to adults and peers. Be patient with these emotions, be available for them to express their feelings, and be supportive of their emotional reactions to their situation.

Keep children occupied

After a significant life event, there is generally so much that needs to be taken care of to get life back on track. To give parents the time to get these tasks accomplished, try to find activities that will keep your children occupied. Activities can include play dates with other children, sitting down and coming up with a list of art projects, or setting aside games to play and books to read. If you happen to have electricity, this can be a perfect opportunity for a screen time marathon. Keeping your children busy will allow you to get done what you need to do and help keep their minds off of the stressful situation.

Keep adult conversations/emotions for adult ears

No doubt, parents will also be experiencing a heightened level of stress and emotion during this time. Adults should have the opportunity to discuss concerns, vent to family and friends, and deal with the aftermath of the situation. However, this is the responsibility of adults, not children. It is appropriate to share your thoughts and feelings with your children, but ensure that you are doing so at a developmentally appropriate level and that you are not placing an undue responsibility on them.

Find avenues to help others

In times of crisis, finding a way to help others can provide an important cathartic release. For individuals in the path of Harvey or Irma, there are many volunteer opportunities either through an established volunteer organization or simply by helping a neighbor. Following life-changing experiences, being able to help others in need can assist the healing process and teach children the important lesson of kindness in the face of adversity.

Get professional help for you and/or your children if needed

There are competent school and mental health professionals who can help both you and your children if needed. This may be short- or long-term, depending on your children’s needs. If more substantial support is required, find it.

Following a stressful life event, it is important to know that children have an amazing capacity for resiliency. Using some of these strategies can help both parents and children focus on moving forward in a positive and thoughtful manner. Stay safe and sending much strength to all.

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