Be Your Child’s Port in a Storm

Lessons learned from Hurricane Harvey

Like everyone in this country, I have been riveted by the coverage of Hurricane Harvey: the absolutely horrific images of entire neighborhoods under water, people of all ages being rescued by boat, families crowded into shelters, the heroic efforts of first responders and volunteers to keep people safe, and all the myriad stories of generosity and selflessness (like the amazing Jim “Mattress Mack” McIngvale, who opened his furniture showrooms to flood victims and National Guard troops). My heart is with all of those affected by this unprecedented disaster—but I can’t help but feel especially strongly for the children who have lost the only home they’ve ever known, who are displaced and wondering what will happen next, and who have witnessed a tragedy no young person should ever have to experience.

So many families have been thrust into extraordinary events that can be life-changing, with short and long-term effects on children’s physical, emotional, and psychological well-being. Even children who live far from the hurricane’s path can experience anxiety or nightmares based on the images they’ve seen on TV, in print, or online.

During my time as director of the National Childhood Grief Institute, I traveled to several places on the globe to help children in the wake of a disaster, including Southeast Asia after the devastating tsunami and New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. My experiences taught me that when disaster strikes, grown-ups can make an enormous difference for children by providing safety, comfort, age-appropriate information, guidance, and reassurance. If you can also manage a sense of humor while being rescued by the fire department with your four children (two of them with Down syndrome), a three-legged dog, and a pig, my hat is truly off to you!

Children’s reactions are greatly influenced by the behavior, thoughts, and feelings of the grown-ups in their lives. In the midst of a crisis, parents can be most effective when they remain calm. Naturally, that’s extremely difficult to do when floodwaters are rising in your home! That’s why I feel it’s so important to provide parents with the support they need to understand and manage their own emotions before any crisis strikes. You can find guidance, tips, and suggestions for a variety of situations here. We also encourage families to establish a plan of action in case of emergency; this will strengthen your child’s sense of safety and security.

Then when challenging times come, parents are better equipped to put the techniques into play in order to maintain a feeling of calm and security for their children.

Once a child’s immediate physical needs have been met, meeting their emotional needs is key to helping them deal with their confusion, anxiety and fear. Children’s reactions will vary, but it’s important to observe children’s behavior while listening carefully to what they are saying. Acknowledge their concerns and validate their feelings; in addition to helping them in the moment, this will foster future conversations about what will happen next.
Once you’re out of the immediate crisis, encourage children to talk about their thoughts and feelings. If they are having a difficult time expressing their emotions, encourage them to draw a picture or tell a story of what happened. Teach simple coping strategies—such as taking a few deep breaths and slowly exhaling, or getting some exercise, or playing—to help reduce and manage children’s stress.

I hope you and your children never have to experience a disaster on the scale of Hurricane Harvey. But being prepared to meet your child’s needs in an emergency just means you’re completely on top of it in ordinary times—and that’s an excellent place to be!