This post goes out to the parents of littles, but take note that much of what you read can easily be adapted to fit your own needs or the needs of an older child. Do not underestimate the importance of self-care and self-compassion during a hard time. Even if you have not had a “direct hit” by Hurricane Harvey (i.e. your house may not have flooded, you didn’t have to evacuate, you only had a power outage), seeing friends and family suffer, even seeing strangers suffer, can be downright difficult and exhausting. There’s so much information to digest about how to help, what to do and what not to do that it can be overwhelming. There’s enough information download and processing happening, so let’s stick to some really important fundamentals. Please feel free to pass this along, as our connection with one another is more important than ever!
When something scary and unreal hits, like what Texas has experienced with Hurricane Harvey, our children need support in making some sense of it. Parents and adults can help children in adapting healthy coping strategies. Here are some simple first steps:
1. Attunement: Time is precious right now. There may be a lot going on with you and around you. As a parent, taking some time to connect with your child will have many positive effects on them and on you. This might be the time when you actually need to schedule, yes schedule, special time with your child. Go ahead and do it - carve out about 10 minutes for play time, extra cuddles, fun reading and good ‘ole fashioned one on one time. Perhaps make this a part of your new routine before bed, but slipping it in between phone calls is fine too. Just make sure that you have given yourself a chance to transition to a place of calm and focus before engaging with your child. Providing special connection time for your child during chaos will remind them of the fact that they are loved and safe. It will also give them an opportunity to be just as they need to be - a child without worry and fear.
2. Response: This might be a time when you, as a parent or caregiver, get a lot of questions. “Where will we sleep tonight?” “Why did this happen?” “When can I go back home?” “Why did my friend have to leave her house?” My go-to suggestion for parents overwhelmed by questions and feeling like they need to answer them all and answer them well is this: Pause and Breathe. Make space for you to clear out anxiety, stress and worry. Your child will not think twice if you don’t immediately answer their questions. Next step is to think: Is this an answer now or answer later question? If it is an answer now question, keep your response simple and age appropriate. The information you give doesn’t need to have a lot of detail. You can give a little bit at a time and check to see if that answers your child’s question. If you think this could be an answer later question, that’s okay too. Generally, those are for the real tough ones or when we don’t know what to say at all. Give the question the space it deserves. Respond with, “Wow, that’s a really good question. Mommy needs to think about that one. I’m not sure right now. I’m going to think about it and then answer you later.” Then, actually do think about it and answer it later. You can also ask your child what they think and how they feel about it.
3. Feelings: There are a lot of them right now. And they might not all make sense or seem totally logical. For instance, the feeling of anxiety may come up but bring into question 'why' because your family maybe hasn’t been directly affected or experienced significant hardship. Any feeling is fine right now. If you notice some behaviors or signs from your child that seem unusual to you, do you best to help them put words to their emotions. As Dan Siegel, MD, says, “Name it to Tame it.” It really does help to say the feeling or feelings out loud in order for them to be soothed and attended to. As a therapist, I love to suggest the following phrase, “I wonder if…” “I wonder if you are feeling scared. There are some scary things happening right now.” “I wonder if you are feeling tired right now. I see that you are rubbing your eyes.” “I wonder if you might be feeling lonely. It’s been a few days since you were able to play with your friends.”
Remember, in a time of crisis, much of how we cope is based on the need to survive. If you are seeing some concerning behavior in your child, DO reach out to a mental health provider to learn more about how to best address what you see and ensure that your child is being well taken care of during this time. The first priorities are providing safety, nourishment, shelter and love.