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Supporting children who have special needs during a natural disaster

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Navigating Hurricane Harvey and its aftermath can be challenging for adults, let alone our youngest citizens. Children who have communication disorders can have an even harder time processing their experience and expressing their feelings. Below are tactics you may find helpful for supporting your child through a natural disaster or other high-stress situations.

  1. All behavior is a form of communication. In times of stress, accessing language becomes much more difficult because the brain is busy being in “survival mode.” This means that emotions and reactions come first, complex thinking and organization of thought come much later. Attune to your child so you may recognize the nonverbal cues and behavior signs that may need attending. It would not be unusual to see a wide variety of behaviors – ranging from an increase in activity and acting out to withdrawal or clinginess. Regardless of what behavior presents itself, respond with love, patience and empathy. Your child is talking to you even if they don’t do so with words.

  2. Establish a “new normal” as best you can and make short-term plans. Maintaining routines will help with a sense of security (i.e., if your child naps at 3 p.m. every day, try to keep that consistent). Likewise, keep your rules/expectations as consistent as you can. Consistency and predictability are some of the most powerful tools in your arsenal for decreasing your child’s anxiety and establishing normalcy. Similarly, you may not know when you can move back home or when the water will go down. But you can make a plan for tomorrow. Even if your plan is as simple as outlining the daily routine, a trip to the grocery store, or making a meal, concrete plans provide safety. You can take it a step further by using simple, hand-drawn visuals.

  3. When you talk to your child about a natural disaster (in our case flooding and/or hurricane), use simple language to minimally describe the facts (i.e., “I want to let you know that all this rain means we have water in our house. The water got high, but stopped before it got to the second story. This means we will need to work on getting new furniture and a new kitchen. But this also means that your room and your toys are safe and dry.”). Avoid using catastrophic language with or around your children (i.e., “This is the worst flood we’ve ever had;” “it’s never been this bad before.”).

  4. If you’re not sure how to answer your child’s questions, or if you can’t give an answer that is developmentally appropriate for your child to handle, ask your children what they think about something rather than just answering their question (i.e., “What do you think?” “What's your idea?”). You may also find that taking a pause and a deep breath helps you to collect your thoughts and buy some time. A response such as, “Wow, that’s a really good question. I’m not sure if I have the answer for that right now. I’d like to think about it and talk to you about it very soon, though,” would be a very appropriate response. Just make sure to think about it and find a good time and space to follow up with your child about their question.

  5. Limit children’s exposure to the news and adult conversations. Even just absorbing information from the periphery can contribute to anxiety and stress. Your children are listening and interpreting, even when they appear to be otherwise occupied. Children who have communication or language disorders have fewer tools for understanding or articulating language, leaving them with a lot of emotion, but little expression. So, it is doubly important your child get the information they need directly from you, rather than other source and their imagination.

  6. Also, as difficult as it is, be mindful of your own emotions—your children are attuned to you, even if they don’t fully understand, and they take their emotional cues from you. Be aware that by simply being exposed to natural disaster, we have all experienced heightened anxiety. When you add constant news and exposure to social media, we become more vulnerable to secondary trauma. Be sure to take care of yourself. Actively practice self-care and make it a priority. Also, ask for help when you need it.

  7. Reflect to your children the feelings and thoughts they appear to be having and normalize them. Watch your child’s facial expressions, tone, body language, words and behaviors, then simply say what you guess their experiences are (i.e., “You are worried that…” “You think...” “You feel...” “Your face looks...”). It’s okay to be wrong; they can correct you. Do reflect on their feelings (i.e., “You are feeling really worried;” “You wish this wasn't happening;” “This feels scary.”) without trying to change, minimize or deny them (i.e., “Don’t worry;” “It’s okay;” “This isn’t that big of a deal;” “Don’t be upset.”). After reflecting their feelings, assure them they are not the only ones feeling that way (i.e., I know you feel worried about our house; it’s okay to feel worried.”)

  8. Emphasize safety and security. Consistently comment that, “We are safe…” “We have food…” “We have water…” and “We are all together,” (assuming, of course, that these things are true). Conversely, don’t make promises you can’t keep or grand statements you can’t substantiate. For example, avoid, “everything is fine,” or “everything will be the same,” because that may not be true.

  9. As Mr. Roger’s would say, point out the helpers and the heroes for your child. Talk about the police officers, firefighters, EMTs, Red Cross, Cajun Navy, and the many others who are doing good and helping others. The destruction from the storm is devastating, but we are also seeing our neighbors and communities rise to their best selves in helping one another.

  10. Empower your children by giving them manageable, age-appropriate tasks they can control (i.e., bake, clean, check on neighbors, volunteer, draw pictures for those who are struggling, etc.).

Natural disasters, especially those as monumental as Hurricane Harvey, are challenging, as well as devastating. However, it is also an opportunity to come together as a family and a community for stronger bonds and relationships. With hard work and a lot of love, families can emerge from this experience closer than ever.