As parents and caregivers, we do our best to shield our children from anxiety, pain, fear and disappointment. But when a big bad like a hurricane or an earthquake occurs, kids need more than the usual reassurances to make it through to the other side. The following tips can help:
Calm their fears. Talk to your kids about the difficulties you and your family – and others – may be facing, but reassure them that normalcy is within reach. "After experiencing trauma, children need to feel safe and get back to business as usual, even though their world and yours may be anything but,” says Michele Borba, Ed.D., author of Unselfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World. “Return to those routines that are do-able: ask how their day at school was, play a board game with them after dinner, cuddle up and read them a story or say your nighttime prayers together. Above all, let your child know that while their world may seem upside down, one thing remains constant: you are there for them.”
Encourage them to share their feelings, and model that behavior by verbalizing your own. Let your children know that whatever they’re feeling is okay, be it anger, sadness, confusion or fear. Tell them they can ask any questions they may have about what’s happened, and answer those questions calmly, in a straightforward and age-appropriate way.
Limit their access to news. Whatever their age, ask kids what they’ve already seen and heard, and address any resulting concerns. Keep younger children away from additional media coverage as much as you can; sit down together to watch or listen to the news with older children and teens and discuss what you’re seeing and hearing.
Normalize their fears by letting them know that what’s happened is scary, so it’s okay to be afraid. Suggest honoring lost lives by saying a prayer, lighting a candle or making plans to plant a tree at a later date; doing so can deliver a sense of empowerment and satisfy a child’s need to “do something” to make things better.
Keep your own stress and anxiety in check around children, who will surely pick up those cues and react accordingly. "Fear can be ‘caught,’” says Borba. “Make sure you take care of yourself first, so you can take care of your child.” Be aware of what you’re saying to other adults about Irma when kids are within earshot, too.
Allow them to contribute to cleanup and recovery efforts in whatever way they can, which will give them a sense of purpose and control.
Point out the good. Perhaps most importantly, remind your children that in times of great trouble, people offer helping hands and band together to help each other through.
There are many ways to aid those in distress through United Way of Miami-Dade, the lead agency for natural disaster recovery. You can choose to make a donation – whether it’s monetary or much-needed household supplies, including bottled water, nonperishable food and baby products – or volunteer through its website at www.unitedwaymiami.org. With United Way branches now in Mexico and Puerto Rico, you can even decide which recovery effort you want your contribution to go toward.