mom comforting child with storm anxiety

They told us we had a moderate chance of severe weather Easter night and to be weather aware. How many times have we heard that and the weather amounted to nothing to write home about?

Many went to sleep thinking if there was severe weather in the area, storm alerts would go off on phones and weather radios. Sadly, between 11 p.m. and midnight, a severe storm turning into an EF3 tornado ravaged our community. Thousands were left without power and hundreds with homes that were either destroyed or uninhabitable until repairs are made.

While we can see the physical devastation from the storm, there is an invisible aftermath. That aftermath is taking its toll on those who lived through the event, especially the children. It reveals itself in different ways depending on the age of the person. 

I have spoken to a number of parents who shared with me that their children are struggling to go to sleep at night. Some say their teenager, who has been totally independent, is now clinging to them and won’t leave their side. Others just seem lost and afraid. I thought it might be helpful to talk about some ways parents can provide comfort for their children as they try and deal with the trauma.

As children try to cope with what they experienced they might feel increased fear and/or anxiety that shows itself in different ways. It may be in the form of tantrums, crying for no apparent reason, acting in ways that seem defiant, not wanting to go to bed by themselves or not wanting to be alone, period. They could become especially clingy, not wanting to leave a parent’s side. 

As parents try to manage repairs and create some sense of “normal” for their family, this behavior could create additional angst for parents.

Here are some things you might find helpful as you seek to help your child process what happened.

Even though you are juggling a lot of things, be intentional about spending focused time with your children. Although their clinginess may get on your nerves, know that sitting in your lap, holding your hand, snuggling up next to you on the couch or in bed are all comforting to children who have experienced trauma.

For your older children, you may see them somewhat withdraw as they try to process what happened. Provide opportunities for open, honest conversation. Answer their questions as best you can. If your teen asks you if you think this could happen again, tell them the truth: It’s possible, but not likely. Consider how old you are and whether or not you have been in the path of a storm like this before. I have lived through a lot of storms, but nothing like the tornado. This helps give perspective to them as they process their experience. 

If you don’t know an answer to a question, say so. You might be able to find the answer together. Or it may just be a question that nobody really knows the answer to.

Where possible, create routines and structure. These two things can help restore a sense of normalcy for your family. People in general thrive on this because it helps them feel more in control (at least to some degree). 

Acknowledge the grieving that is going on and the loss of innocence for young children. In reality, they will never NOT remember this moment in time. Take care in how you talk with them, and assure them of your protective presence. Giving them the opportunity to write, talk and/or draw about what they are feeling and then explain it to you will help them process their emotions.

Playtime is important. Even in the midst of trying to get things done, take time out to do something fun. This can help to decrease anxiety and stress and help the healing process – even for the adults.

Adapting to change in general is often hard for people. It can be unsettling for everyone, especially children, when you are uprooted from your home and have to live somewhere else permanently or until repairs are complete. Don’t assume they grasp what is going on. Talk them through it by explaining it clearly. You might say, “Because of the damage to our home we are going to have to live in another place for a while, or we are going to have to look for a new place to live.”

If this is the only home your children have known, there will probably be some sadness and anxious feelings that you can actually talk about. However, don’t underestimate the calm that this can bring even to a 4-year-old who may not understand everything. Keep it simple and age appropriate. It helps decrease surprises which tend to increase anxiety in children. You might have to have the same conversation a number of times and that’s honestly to be expected. Be patient.

There are some things that are adult topics such as money constraints that children don’t need to know the details about. You can always say, “We can’t do that right now, but I will remember that you asked about that and when things settle down we will talk about it.”

Limit the amount of exposure your children have to the ongoing news, photos on social media and even conversations that you have around them. It is challenging as adults – triple that for children. All of the ongoing exposure keeps them from being able to recalibrate and settle down.

Take care of yourself. You’re probably really tired of hearing that phrase, but let people cook for you, help you clean up, provide food. Let others do anything that will allow you to conserve energy and be there for your children.

As you move forward, remember that every family is different. It’s normal to feel traumatized, have some flashbacks and feel on edge (hyper-vigilant) after something like this. These symptoms usually will subside or at least decrease over the next few weeks. There really is no easy fix. Things will not get better immediately. But paying attention to how you engage with your children, what you allow them to be exposed to and being intentional about talking with them and being physically close to them will bring comfort.

If they are still struggling to adjust over time, don’t be afraid to seek professional help for them. These things are scary, frustrating and hard to manage for us even as adults. Asking for what you need from others can help you get through the challenges you face. At the same time, it will help you be a healthier parent for your kids.

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