One of the most difficult situations we face as parents is helping our children cope with stress. How do we share difficult news with them? How much do we share? How do we answer their questions? And how do we comfort them? Right now, in Houston, we are experiencing a catastrophic tropical storm and flood. It has been days of rain and flooding and not knowing what is to come next. We have to help our children process this experience. Not just at some point in the future, but today. Now. As it is happening.
Every child is different and the amount of information they need or can handle is different. For children under the age of six, they need basic facts and acknowledgment their concerns are being heard. Here are some tips that can help guide you and help you figure out the right conversation for your family.
- Stay calm, your child will look to you for the appropriate reaction. Make sure they see you in a calm and thoughtful state. If you feel overwhelmed, take a moment to step out of the room, breathe deeply, and then rejoin the conversation when you are ready. Remember, you are their guide in understanding how to react to the situation so it is important to be your best self in this moment. It is ok for them to see your tears, let them know you are not physically hurt, but your tears are because you are sad.
- Be honest; it is important to be honest with your child. State what is happening such as; “There is a tropical storm over our city and there is a lot of rain. The rain has not drained and now the water is in our street, (or our yard, or our house)” Say this calmly and then finish with “I love that we are safe and together.” They may have questions but remember that as adults, we often offer more information than they need. Try answering questions like, “what will happen to our toys” with “they might get wet.” and if they press on, “will we get them again?” reply “We will check on them once the water has time to drain.”
- Be present; be in the moment with your child. If you are evacuating or waiting for rescue, you can just be together in the moment. Give them hugs and keep them close. When they have a story or question, look them in their eyes and listen. Answer the best you can, but try to keep them present in the moment with you so they do not feel an overwhelm of “out-of-control” These moments can make a difference in their ability to cope and follow direction.
- Help others. If you are fortunate enough to be in a situation to help others, let your children know what they can do to help. Show them what you are doing and how they can be a part. They can help choose canned goods from the pantry to donate. They can help choose towels and clothing to bring to shelters, and they can help wash laundry of those affected by the flooding. Let them know it is important that we all help each other, that you are helping because you are in a position to do so and that other people would help you if you needed it. They have a natural sense of empathy and can feel comforted by the message that people are willing to reach out and help. Connecting to this situation in a meaningful way will help them process what is happening and help them feel purposeful in their actions as well as a stronger connection to their community.
Mr. Rogers had great advice for our little ones, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping." The Fred Rogers website has more helpful tips and information.
I will write more as we continue to cope with Harvey and it’s after effects. Once the storm passes, we will need to all work together to cope and help our children grow through this.