News & Press
Community Wellness: How to talk to children about tornadoes & other disasters
By Chad Reagh, MA, LLPC, QIDP
Children’s Services Supervisor, Ionia County Community Mental Health
Posted Jun. 26, 2015 at 11:54 PM
In the wake of a tornado that struck the community of Portland this week, some parents and caregivers are asking how to talk with their kids about such a catastrophe without frightening or confusing them more than the event already has. Here are some things to keep in mind.
Kids are very resilient, so there really is no right or wrong way to talk with them. But the big thing is: have the conversations. Give them time. Listen to them and let them vocalize their feelings, thoughts and reactions to the event – this is how they will process what happened. The worst thing we can do is tell them not to feel that way, or not to think that way.
Never tell kids that nothing else bad is going to happen, because that is not something you can control. They know if you’re telling the truth; so, instead of making unrealistic promises, reassure them that “We’re doing everything we can to keep you safe.” There are things we have control over, but not everything.
When you converse with your child, do it simply and basically. Convey information about the event in a way they can understand and comprehend, and answer their questions simply and truthfully. Give them time to listen and to process that information. Sometimes it’s just sitting next to them. Don’t rush the conversation. Let them sit quietly. Even if they don’t talk, they’re still thinking or feeling about the event.
Keep your kids active. Physical activity is a great way to release tension and stress. (It’s the same as with adults – we feel less stressed when we’re physically active.) Sometimes kids don’t want to do that, and that’s OK. Don’t force them. Drawing, playing with toys, or writing about the event in a journal is OK, too. Expressing themselves in drawing or coloring is actually good. It’s a way of processing; they can draw or color, then let them tell you the story of the picture.
If at all possible – and this is hard after an event like a tornado – keeping kids in their structure and routine is very important. The more we veer off from it, the less stable they feel. Kids like predictability. It reduces their stress.
There will be kids who are anxious and overwhelmed. If they have physical symptoms: stomachaches, headaches, trouble sleeping, loss of appetite or loss of interest in activities they took pleasure in, it would be a good idea to seek help from a mental health professional. If children are very preoccupied with questions or worries about the disaster, they should be evaluated by a professional. Then there are kids who have been exposed to trauma or a loss in the past, and they are particularly vulnerable to prolonged reactions and likely will need support through such events.
Don’t overexpose kids to media coverage of the event, especially to the repeated images. The information offered is more hype and not in a way that is soothing to them. Do, however, let children know that there was a disaster and a lot of people are helping, caring and coming together. When something scary happens, there are other people around who will help.
An event like the recent tornado offers an opportunity to talk to kids ahead of time about what they want to do when there is another frightening scenario: “When we have another thunderstorm, what will make you feel safe? Could we wrap up in a blanket together, or could you call me if I’m not with you?” Talk about a plan.
Since you’re talking about storms, you also could talk about fire: “What are we going to do?” “What if we get in a car accident, how will we handle that?” Talking ahead of time will help kids give a voice to their fears and plan for what will help them feel safe. These conversations also will give ideas to parents or caregivers about how to meet their kids’ needs.
Children learn a lot from us. If we can take care of ourselves, they’ll likely take care of themselves better.
To find out more about helping kids feel safer after a disaster, call Ionia County Community Mental Health at 616-527-1790.
Chad Reagh supervises the home-based therapy program for adolescents, children and their families.