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5 tips to help your child (and yourself) become more resilient following Hurricane Harvey

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In an earlier post, we provided suggestions for helping your child through the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Harvey or other traumatic events; but the process of restoring Houston, our lives, and those of our friends and families, has just begun. Experts say we’ll see the impact of Harvey for months, and the recovery from an experience of this scope can take as long, if not longer.

Faced with that reality, we’ve all asked, “How can we come back from this?” “What are we going to do?” and “How can I help my child through this?” When we have these questions, what we’re really talking about is resiliency, which is “the ability to overcome.” People, particularly children, are naturally resilient. We can all recover with the right support, empathy and empowerment. To help your children (and yourself), consider the following:

  1. Call a spade, a spade. Acknowledge for yourself and your children that Harvey has been a traumatic event. If you lived in Houston or Southeast Texas, experiencing trauma of one kind or another is nearly a given. No parent wants to think their child is traumatized; people generally don’t want to think of themselves as being traumatized. It is also true that no one person’s experience is the same, but to acknowledge that Harvey has been traumatizing is the first step to becoming active agents in your own resiliency.

    You can experience trauma directly by going through an event (i.e., the constant anxiety of living in the unknown, under the shadow of impending danger from the storm; needing to evacuate; leaving your pets; rescuing others, etc.). You can also experience it by relating to or being exposed to someone else’s trauma, which is called Secondary or Vicarious Trauma. This type occurs by watching about the storm on the news; listening to the stories of those more directly impacted; volunteering at shelters; helping to muck out a friend’s home, etc. Both trauma experiences have similar symptoms, can be very significant, and have a lasting impact.

  2. Recognize the symptoms of trauma. Your child may exhibit some, all, or none of the following, which is normal. Many of these symptoms may present as misbehavior, which is easy to overlook or misconstrue. (Recall our previous post where we discussed children’s behavior as a form of communication.)

    • Clinginess, comfort-seeking, heightened dependence on parents
    • Difficulty making decisions
    • Intense, unpredictable, and/or cycling emotions including irritability, anxiety, depression, rage, edginess, agitation, etc.
    • Pervasive fearfulness
    • Flashbacks or repeated, vivid memories of the event
    • Numbness, disconnection, or listlessness; prolonged “checking out”
    • Verbally or physically aggressive
    • Easily startled
    • Difficulty concentrating
    • Increase in anger and a decrease in frustration tolerance
    • Changes in eating patterns; won’t sleep in own bed
    • Developmental regression (i.e., wetting the bed, infantile tone, etc.)
    • Avoids talking about what happened
    • Talks, thinks, plays about the event obsessively
    • Appears aloof or argumentative
    • “Just seems different”
    • Physical symptoms such as increased heart rate, sweatiness, difficulty catching breath, headaches, nausea, chest pain, constipation
    • Impacted relationships due to irritability, withdrawal, avoidance, etc.

    The course of trauma is highly individualized, and children process differently than adults. When children experience an event like Hurricane Harvey, it is normal for their moods to cycle more extremely between highs and lows. It is also normal for children to handle the subject in a lighthearted, humorous, or playful way. This isn’t evidence of a lack of empathy; rather, it’s indicative of how deeply they feel about the subject and the need to find a way to process it without becoming overwhelmed. Still other children seem avoidant, or seek to bury themselves in activities, friendships, videogames, and school work. It is a self-protection tactic.

    You can also expect for some symptoms and behaviors to show up later. For many children, there may be no immediate response to the event. Symptoms may appear for weeks or months. These children often seem like the events didn’t impact them at all, which is why it is surprising when symptoms arise well after a child appears to have “forgotten about it” or “moved on.” Parents and teachers alike would do well to keep track of children’s moods and behaviors approximately eight to 12 months from the event, and communicate often to ensure children are coping well.

  3. Allow your children to process through play. Play is how children learn, process and develop mastery. Even in the best of circumstances, children lack the cognitive development to work through many experiences with words alone. Instead, children naturally use play to soothe, understand, learn, and, eventually, to triumph. When any event occurs that is too big for them to handle, children will especially need to play out their experiences and feelings to develop understanding, safety, security, and resolution.

    child plays with legosAfter events such as these, you can expect your child to repeatedly play the same thing over and over, usually (but not always) with content related to the event.

    After 9/11, children were reported to repeatedly play planes crashing into buildings. Thus far, children in the area have been described as repeatedly playing out drowning and rescuing scenarios, as well as lining things up to be “saved” and put up “out of the water/flood.”

    Remain accepting and open, even if the play isn’t “realistic” or factual. It may be painful for you to watch or hear your child’s innermost thoughts and feelings about the events by witnessing their play, but know that it is healing for them. Avoid stopping your child from playing out their experience, as it deprives them of an opportunity to process and cope, thereby becoming resilient.

    However, if your child becomes obsessive, distressed, agitated, unsafe or detached while playing out the event, you should intervene. Put limits on how long a child plays or distract your child with other toys and ideas, but don’t stop there. These types of behaviors following a traumatic event are indications your child needs more support and it is recommended that you consult a therapist.

  4. Beware Survivor’s Guilt. When you ask why you “got lucky,” when others lost everything; whether you could have done anything to stop the tragedy or help the hurting; and whether you’ve done “enough,” you are experiencing Survivor’s Guilt. While it may seem extreme, surviving is its own special brand of trauma. Survivor’s Guilt can lead to depression, anxiety, irritability or numbness.

    Survivor Guilt is about shame and often comes from feeling helpless and powerless, which eat away at resiliency. While your children may not have clearly articulated thoughts about surviving while others struggle, they too are vulnerable to feelings of guilt and/or shame in the face of a natural disaster. Children might simply say, “I feel bad…” but are unable to expand when you ask why. In fact, children are prone to taking guilt one step further by shouldering blame for the event (i.e., “I caused the hurricane;” “It’s my fault;” “I didn’t stop it;” etc). Tell your children very specifically that the Hurricane was no one’s fault. It is just something that happened and they are not responsible.

    Develop your children’s resilience by giving yourself and your children permission to be glad—it does not negate the compassion you have for others. It’s okay to be happy you have not lost your home, toys or car; it’s okay to feel relief; it’s even okay to find humor during the chaos.

    Stop yourself from downplaying or denigrating your own experiences of Harvey. This might sound like self-talk that says, “stop being so emotional,” or “stop overreacting” because “you don’t really have anything to complain about,” or “I’ve been so lucky.” Stay away from using statements with your children about how they “should” feel (i.e., “You should be grateful. Some kids lost all their toys;” or “everything’s fine, you need to let it go.”)

    Be kind and tolerant to yourself and children; even if you’ve “only been impacted minimally.” Your experiences are valid and powerful.


As we forge ahead, practice compassion. Each time we demonstrate kindness for ourselves, our children and our community, we help one another work through trauma and triumph. In the end, compassion for ourselves and others is what will turn Hurricane Harvey into an exercise in resiliency.

 


Article written with input from Rise Van Fleet, Ph.D, LP, RPT-S.
Mochi, C. and VanFleet, R. (2009, December). Roles play therapists play: Post Disaster Engagement and Empowerment of Survivors. Play Therapy Magazine, 26-28.
VanFleet, R. and Sniscak, C.C. (2003b). Filial therapy for children exposed to traumatic events. Casebook of Filial Therapy, 113-138.