How to Help your Children Cope with the Trauma of Hurricane Harvey

Jeff Guenther on Sep 04, 2017

As a therapist who has been treating children, families and individuals throughout my career, I know that recovering from a catastrophic event such as a natural disaster that displaces your family can be a major adjustment, to say the least. The loss, trauma and shock can be a heavy emotional toll on even the highest functioning adult. The effect on children can leave psychological impacts for years to come. However, if parents and adults in effected children’s lives respond in an emotionally responsible and healthy manner, then you’ll have a good chance of curtailing some of the negative effects that could be created by a disaster of this magnitude and also start to instill healthy and resilient ways of coping with unforeseen and jarring life situations. 

The following is a list of tips that any adult can do with children who have been affected by Hurricane Harvey, or any other traumatic situation:

1. Take care of yourself 

The only way you can truly take care of your kids is to make sure that you’re emotionally together enough to be there for them during this time. It’s just like the age old advice you get when you’re flying on a plane. Before taking off, the flight attendant will remind you to secure your own air mask before helping your children. This is because you can’t take care of your kids if you’re running out of air yourself. So do your very best to get yourself in an emotional space that feels as grounded and secure as possible. If you can’t feel 100% emotionally stable it’s totally understandable. Just try the best you can so you can be as present as possible for your kids. 

2. Ask and listen

Most children will have a lot of thoughts and feelings about everything that is going on. As an adult that has a better gauge on the situation, you may feel tempted to tell your kids what’s going on and talk to them a lot about how everything is going to work. There is definitely a time and place for that, but you may want to first check in with the child first to see where they are emotionally. Ask your kids how they feel. Let them know they can talk about absolutely anything. Reassure them that you won’t judge them or tell them what they are feeling is wrong. You just want to know what their emotional experience is of the situation. While you listen to their words be sure to let them talk as much as they need to and reflect back what you hear them saying in your own words. 

3. Make them feel as safe as possible

It’s important that kids feel a sense of safety in a traumatic situation that uproots them. Obviously they’ll have feelings ranging from fear to grief to anxiety, so it’s tough to instill a sense of safety and security during these times. But it’s important to let them know that you’re all in this together as a family. That even if you don’t know what the immediate future holds, the adults are going to do their best to get things back on track. Even if that means that everything is flipped upside down for a while.

4. Answer their questions as best as you can

When something traumatic and unexpected happens every human, especially children, want to know why it happened. What could have caused this freak disaster? Could you have done something different to change the outcome? Your kids will inevitably want more information on why their home and town is all of a sudden under water. Think of ways to explain what happened using age appropriate language. If you need a little assistance you can have them watch this episode of Sesame Street where the gang works together to clean up after a disaster. 

Photo by Florida Fish and Wildfire

5. Don’t allow your kids to watch too much TV coverage

Or maybe just don’t allow them to watch the coverage at all. TV tends to glorify these disasters and create even more fear. It can be mesmerizing to watch the images of all the wreckage. It’s best to stay away from it. It can be re-traumatizing and anxiety producing for children. 

6. Watch for unusual behavior from your children

If your child is having difficulty dealing with stress, they may display some of the following behaviors: 

  • Moods that are characterized by depression, irritability or anxiety.
  • Difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep. Experiencing nightmares.
  • Changes in eating habits. Eating more or less food. 
  • Behaviorally acting out the trauma over and over again.
  • Excessive clinginess or neediness. 

If any of these behaviors are present, then your children are still trying to process the traumatic events and need to be listened to and talked to so that they can start to create a narrative of what happened. Explore any fear they may have. 

7. Come up with a plan

As difficult and as impossible as it might be to plan for events like this, try to come up with a plan with your family for the next time a disaster strikes. Children, and adults for that matter, feel relief knowing that there is a plan that has been agreed upon when something unpredictable and scary happens. 

Next steps

Recovery will probably be a long journey depending on how badly your lives have been affected by Hurricane Harvey. If you or your children continue to have problems processing everything that has happened it would be a good idea to find a therapist that treats childhood trauma. Therapists that specialize in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) will have a lot of tools to address the problem. 

If you feel I have missed anything and something should be added to the list, please email me at [email protected]. Please feel free to share this list with friends in the Houston area that have been affected. 

Jeff Guenther, LPC, is a therapist in Portland, OR. He has been in private practice since 2005. Jeff is the creator and owner of Portland Therapy Center, a highly ranked therapist directory. Jeff, and his team, have launched a new progressive therapist directory, TherapyDen.

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