By Dr. Shayna Whitehouse, PhD, School Psychologist
The devastating flood that occurred in Colorado this last week has had dramatic effects on the families and children in our state. It has disrupted our normal routine by isolating families and necessitating rescues, interrupting cell service prohibiting contact between friends and families in need, and cancelling schools preventing access to typically constant supporting community members. Some families have lost their belongings, suffered severe water damage, or needed emergency rescue. Other families did not encounter such loss. However, all individuals, families and children are affected by this tragedy: Those who have experienced loss and those who are left wondering why they were spared and how they can help their neighbors and community. All children express their emotions in different ways and at different times, no matter their personal experience with these storms. Some children discuss their thoughts and worries, others demonstrate behavioral changes, and some search for ways to reach out to their community. These emotional expressions may be observed right away or after the passage of time, and they may persist for some time or increase and decrease repeatedly over time. Resources from organizations such as National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) and American Psychological Association (APA) help to guide us as professionals, parents and community members. These organizations provide several ideas for helping to support and reassure our children:
- Communicate any family needs or emotional changes of children to your children’s school. The school can help connect your family and children to services for housing, transportation, and emotional support.
- Reduce exposure to television and news for the near future to lessen anxiety and intense emotional responses. Because children are experiencing increased stress related to the flood, any exposure to additional stressors reported on the news will increase anxiety and other emotional reactions.
- Calmly discuss with your children that the flood occurred but reinforce their safety by telling them that many people at home and in the school help to keep them safe and plan for their safety in community buildings. Relate that the priority of family and educators is safety.
- In discussions about the flood, focus on the fact that many people have come together to help families to safety. Make sure to point out these heroic and empathetic gestures and focus on describing the compassion people show within the community and nation when helping to care for others and rebuilding the community.
- Be prepared for their emotions to change frequently. Some emotions that children may experience are sadness, anger, elation, and/or anxiety. You may observe shorter attention spans, irritable behavior, and increased or decreased energy levels. Let your children know that any emotions they feel are acceptable and provide the support and comfort they need. Be prepared for these emotions to be demonstrated at different times. Often siblings will experience and express emotions in very different ways as well, even when they saw the same events.
- Be aware that children may have a trigger for emotional or behavioral change, such as the smell of rain, the sound of thunder, a cloud moving overhead, or seeing areas in need of clean up. Allow for emotional change and provide the comfort that your child needs.
- Keep your schedule as normal as possible to continue comfortable routines, but allow for emotional expression and flexibility in activities as needed. You may see increased anxiety or emotional expressions if your children experience a trigger, and you may need to alter plans to decrease anxious feelings.
- When you and/or your children are experiencing significant emotional or behavioral changes, it is appropriate to ask for support. You can find support through your children’s school, a community health organization, or the Red Cross. It is natural that we all need support when experiencing extreme stress. Finding this support allows us to again feel safe and secure and capable of handling additional stresses that come our way.
- Discuss with children that time will be needed to rebuild or to find a consistent place to live. While you may not know specifics, you can indicate that it will take time and that the community and school will be helping.
- Help children identify their personal strengths about how they have supported others and coped in times that were difficult in the past. If your child feels guilty for not experiencing the loss many others have experienced, they may need to identify ways they can help others. Often giving to the community can ease this feeling of discomfort. Also, let them know that we feel guilt when we cause something, and that we did not cause this event. While they may feel guilt, they were not responsible for the tragedy.
- Get to now the safety plan at your children’s school and ensure that you are linked to the communication notification system that your school or district provides. Reassure your child that you are connected to these emergency notification systems.
- Develop your own safety plan for natural disasters and instruct your children in the protocol. Reinforce how the plan will help keep the family safe and together. Indicate that the events are unlikely to occur in the future but that planning helps to make sure family members are safe.
(Gathered from NASP and APA resources)
There are extremely helpful resources available for parents and educators on the Internet. Please take time to read them and utilize the suggestions and ideas as needed.
- This site has links for parents, administrators and teachers.
- The National Child Traumatic Stress Network
- This site has many resources related to traumatic situations children encounter.
- This site has a link to a helpful page for parents to provide ideas for supporting their children and themselves.
As a community we can support the needs of our children. These helpful resources can guide our discussions to allow us to comfort our children and help them know we strive to keep them safe in any situation.