Children and Storm Stress- Building emotional recovery after natural disasters, By Dwight Bain

Monster storms like Hurricanes, Tsunamis, Earthquakes, Tornadoes, Floods, Blizzards, Forest Fires and Mud Slides destroy more than communities- they destroy the emotional security and stability in the lives of everyone, especially in our children. Knowing what to do and say will help you to make a positive difference in the lives of children during the process of rebuilding. Here are some key elements to equip you to better serve children who have been emotionally traumatized by natural disasters.

How are children affected? It depends on the age of the child. The younger the child, the more they look to their parents for emotional security and strength. If a Mom or Dad are “shell-shocked" or “numb” and not able to manage their own emotions or responsibilities; the child will feel that pressure and become very confused and further stressed. Remember, it's normal to be overwhelmed by a major natural disaster, which is why it's going to be so important for caregivers to take care of themselves in order to effectively take care of your children through the long period of recovery and rebuilding after the storm.
When you can focus and dedicate attention to the needs of the child, notice what they are saying, drawing or doing to determine if they are still feeling overly stressed from the storm. School age kids need to talk, draw or take positive action, (like having a lemonade stand to raise money for kids just like them who are now storm victims because their homes were destroyed), so if you give them something to do to help, they can take positive action and sort through their emotions immediately. High school age kids may try to act "cool" about everything, but often are more scared about the changes, losses and confusion than any other group. They are older and may need to experience a bit more "reality" at times to loosen up their ability to talk about what is happening around them. If they are willing to talk to their siblings, or other family members, it won't be long before they can grow strong enough to deal with things in any setting.
Mostly watch for danger signs by noticing any dramatic changes in behavior. If a child was always happy go lucky before the storm and now sits all day to watch video footage of world disasters on the news- then you may want to figure out why they made such a dramatic shift in personality. Watch for other major changes in sleep patterns, school patterns, school performance, peer relations and so on. If you see major changes that concern you, it's time to seek professional attention for the child with their pediatrician or with a child behavioral specialist

What are some ways to help kids talk about storm stress?You can reach out to children in many ways to help them deal with this stressful time of rebuilding after the storm. Talking, writing, drawing, even making up a song about the experience with the hurricanes will make the time pass more quickly, and may even lighten someone else's load of emotional pain and difficulty while helping you back through the process. Some families even play board games like the "worst case scenario," (which is based on actual survival information from a book by the same name). Many of the issues discussed in the game aren't likely to happen to the majority of people on the planet, (such as how to survive a shark attack), talking about any crisis event in life can help kids learn the basics of moving from the panic of basic survival to building strengths through problem solving.

Are there any “hidden dangers” in media that parents should be concerned about that might make storm stress worse?Too much media exposure is dangerous for kids. It is better to get a media "news update" once or perhaps at the most, twice a day to avoid the danger of media over exposure. Leaving the news on all the time will depress the mood of the person who hears it; since deep down inside we learn to go "numb" to the normal emotions of the stressful event, to press on and burn reserve energy in the process. If your child didn't watch the morning news programs before the hurricane hit, be cautious about allowing them to watch TV news alone or having long blocks of unaccounted time with too much isolation. Best is to sort through media outlets-like television, Internet, radio or newspapers, which may contain content that is overly stressful or just too depressing for a child. Then set boundaries to protect them from additional stress in media stories, since it is important to protect their home and minds by managing the media around them.

It's wise to move from negatives to positives in highly charged and difficult situations like this. We have all seen enough negative images to last a life time and things are still being discovered and played back over again and again in media. Also, parents and kids can sit down and discuss why they really need to have so many media and entertainment services available in their homes. Many families found that not having the Internet, cable television and loud music playing in their homes all the time allowed them to reconnect as a family in communication. By sitting down and discussing these issues your home can be a more positive place, with just enough energy to mange the stress of this situation.

Since watching other peoples problems in other parts of the country will cause more stress in an already stressful situation it's better to focus on your responsibilities today, right here in your own community. When things in your life are strong again, you and your kids won't be as affected by the images of crisis from other places. But that's another day, so for now, just focus on getting you and your kids though the day that we have been handed without making it harder because of the hidden stress of media overexposure.

Is it okay to talk about what happened to our family with others?Silence is not golden in a critical incident, rather, it's dangerous. One of the best things that you can do to help yourself and help others is to tell your story. Talk about where you were when the storm came through. Talk about how you and your loved ones made it through the crisis to the other side. Keep talking and make it a point to listen carefully as you hear the stories of others who survived this terrible storm. This is important for everyone involved, kids, grandparents, Mom, dads, employees, employers, firefighters, police officers, nurses, teachers, students and on and on. Everyone has a story about how they got through these killer hurricanes and telling it will help them heal and may give you a new chance to connect with your family, neighbors and coworkers in a powerful way. Also, don't miss asking your own pastor, priest, rabbi, or spiritual authority since many times these professionals are so busy listening to the needs of others, they neglect to take time to reduce the stress that they feel.

The ‘lone ranger’ mentality eventually leads to someone becoming the ‘lonely ranger’ because you can't get through a crisis alone, nor should you try. We need each other more than ever to successfully manage crisis events like these natural disasters. Another reason why this is so important is that viewing the destruction firsthand, (obviously in age appropriate ways), is one of the best ways to allow children to see how dangerous storms can be. And the most important reason to model this behavior to our younger kids is because they learn from their earliest childhood that families who stick together through the entire process can get through it better and faster than those who go it alone.

Think about the advice given on commercial airliners to parents traveling with small children. “Should there be an unexpected cabin de-pressurization; oxygen masks will drop from the ceiling. Place the mask over your nose and mouth and then place the mask over the mouth and nose of those around you needing assistance.” Take care of your own emotional needs first, and then you will be in a stronger position to help those around you. If you feel overwhelmed in giving your children or others who may depend on you for support, please ask for help. It's okay to be tired, worn out and overly stressed. That's normal for a situation like this one. However, it's not okay to ignore caring for the needs of those counting on you like children, the elderly or pets. Sometimes a parent may need to make adjustments at work or change their own schedules for a while by delegating some tasks in order to have time and energy to help their children avoid feeling more pressure because of this difficult time. If you feel that your caregiver tank is empty, let someone else help you for a while until you get your strength back. That's best for you and for those that you care about.

Dwight Bain Bio:Author, Nationally Certified Counselor & Certified Family Law Mediator in practice since 1984 with a primary focus on solving crisis events and managing major change. Professional member of the National Speakers Association and Critical Incident Stress Management expert with the Orange County Sheriffs Office, founder of StormStress.com and trainer for over 1,000 business groups on the topic of making strategic change to overcome major stress- both personally & professionally. Access more life coaching strategies at www.DwightBain.com

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