As the Greater Houston community recovers from the devastation of Hurricane Harvey, Collaborative for Children has compiled this list of practical tips and strategies that parents can use with young children to help them heal from this unprecedented natural disaster in a healthy way.
Children thrive on routine. Try to keep a familiar routine however possible, even if you are displaced. Examples may include eating meals together, getting dressed every day, reading together, establishing a consistent bedtime routing. This can help to maintain some familiarity in a new place or situation and can be comforting to children. For infants, try to maintain the child’s routines around being held, sleeping and feeding.
To the extent possible, avoid any unnecessary separations from important caregivers.
Give your child a sense of control. Even minor decisions, such as allowing them to choose between two sandwich fillings at lunch, makes the child feel more in control. This is especially important after the chaos of a crisis. Children who feel helpless tend to experience more severe stress symptoms.
Don’t introduce changes such as new routines or stricter standards of behavior. Leave that for another time. Maintain family roles if you can. For example, don’t insist that your child take on more responsibility than usual or expect them to meet the emotional needs of a distressed parent or sibling.
COMFORTING YOUR CHILD
Parents need to model and reassure children with non-verbal communication. This can be difficult for some parents. Remember children also may be in a state of panic and stress. Parents must remain calm in order for the children to remain calm.
Non-verbal communication is important to help a child who is afraid. This can include a hug, holding their hand, sitting close to them and just being there with them. Respect that the child may not want to communicate and refrain from asking too many questions.
Be understanding. Recognize that changes in behavior, such as tantrums or bedwetting, may be the way your child reacts to distressing or frightening events. Give your child extra attention, particularly at bedtime and at other times of separation, if this is an issue for them.
Expect that the child may temporarily regress (go backwards) in their behavior or become ‘clingy’ and dependent. Don’t panic if this occurs – it is one of the child’s ways of trying to cope with what they have been through.
TALKING WITH YOUR CHILD
Tell your child about what happened in a way that is appropriate to their level of understanding and without going into frightening detail. Use language they understand. If you keep accurate information from them, they will fill in the blanks using their experience, available information and their imagination.
Make sure your child hasn’t jumped to any wrong conclusions. For example, younger children may think that tragedies are their fault because they were naughty or thought bad things about someone.
Parents and adults should be mindful of the conversations they are having about the storm, their personal experiences and the recovery process within earshot of children. Especially in this time of disruption when many families might be temporarily lodging with others, it is natural for this disaster to dominate adult conversations. Remember that children are listening and may not be able to appropriately understand or process what they are overhearing.
HELPING CHILDREN COMMUNICATE
Listen to your child. Take their concerns and feelings seriously. Let your child know that you would like to hear about how they are feeling.
Let your child know that it is OK to ask questions and to express their concerns. Because the aftermath of a hurricane includes constantly changing situations, children may have questions on more than one occasion. Issues may need to be discussed more than one time.
Use a toy or something that the child feels secure with. For example, if the child has a stuffed bunny, ask the child, “How do you think Mr. Bunny is feeling?” This gives the child a way to express his or her feelings by the use of the stuffed animal.
Allow a child to play. This is a great way to hear their thoughts if they are not communicating with a parent or other adult. Children tend to talk aloud and express their thoughts through play. Parents can listen to understand how children are coping, and can play along. This may start a conversation asking open-ended questions.
Use group activities as a family to cope. Try a game where the parent can start by saying, “I was afraid when…” and then state “but I felt better when…” This way, a child can see that even though something negative happened, it will get better. While playing as a group, parents should allow children to express their feelings and not correct the child.
Tell children how you’re feeling too, but don’t ‘overload’ or burden them with details. You may need to explain adult reactions to stress. For example, your child may feel distressed by a crying parent or caregiver unless they know the reason for the upset.
WAYS CHILDREN CAN HELP
Children can write thank you cards or draw pictures for first responders and others who helped and volunteered.
Non-displaced children may choose to donate clothing or toys, or raise money through bake sales or other means to donate to a shelter or other charity for flood victims.
Children from non-displaced families can participate in shopping or selection of disaster-relief supplies for families in need.