How do we help our children emerge stronger from facing a natural calamity

It has been a time of devastation and destruction for Kerala and Kodagu.  As we think of relief operations and rebuilding lives, it is important to recognize the impact of this event on the most vulnerable - children!

Most often, we do not immediately see any obvious effects on children. But as things sink in, the horrifying experience could have affected them in ways we cannot imagine. There is research and evidence that tells us that disasters like this can cause trauma in children and have deep psychological effects if not addressed.

Parents who have faced calamities share:

  • My son has not been able to sleep properly at night. He asks a lot of questions about whether everything will be alright.

  • My daughter keeps asking, “Have we lost our home? When will we go home?”

  • Even though we were not affected my 12-year-old is scared and insists on sleeping with us.

  • My daughter refuses to leave my lap.

Some children may bounce back to normal within a day or two. In such cases parents may be reluctant to go back and relive the incident, thinking the child has got over it and it is unnecessary to speak about it. But unless we give these children opportunities to work through the feelings associated with this event, it is very possible that some fear and insecurities stay with them which can trigger off at any point.

For example, any time they are in a situation of heavy rain they may start panicking.  So what is it that children really need from us? Author of the book “Brain Rules”, John Medina, who is a geneticist and microbiologist, says that many of us think that the primary job of the brain is learning. But this is not true. The primary job of the brain is survival, and so seeking safety is the first priority of the brain. Hence, all those who are responsible for children - parents, teachers, caregivers - should pay utmost attention to what children need to feel safe. While this is true at all times, it is even more important in times of crisis. How can we do this?

Work on your own feelings and take care of yourself: This is the first step sinceif you are scared, children will feel scared. If you can be calm and strong, so will they. When parents feel a sense of safety, the child also feels reassured.It is important for you to recognize what you are going through! Each of us has our own way of coping with emotions that works for us. You could find a friend or family member with whom you feel safe to share your feelings of sadness, worry, guilt or anger - talk, cry, shout! Though it will be hard, try to get into a routine. If possible, focus on the things you can be grateful for - safety, help from others, your family. This will help you feel hopeful.

Observe your children: When you are feeling calmer, observe what is happening with your children. Each child is different and may react in different ways. Some may have found it exciting and did not show any signs of stress immediately, but it may come up later when they begin to feel their losses. Some children may show their stress through behaviours like nightmares, clinging, refusing to let their parents out of sight, or even having tantrums or being aggressive. Young children may ‘behave badly’ when they are worried or scared; it is their way of asking for help. You may not even connect as to why the child is doing some things. Hug your children, reassure them. Talk to them. Say “Amma and Appa will always take care of you. We are here with you. Things will be fine.”

Give children space to express their emotions: To help children recover, we need to encourage them to understand what happened and form a narrative which helps them to heal and overcome their fears and anxieties. Help your child name how she feels: “scared,” “terrified,” “angry,” “sad.” Tell her it’s OK to feel that way. Don't try to say, “You should be grateful, others are suffering more.” or “Don't worry about your toys, we will buy new ones.” Each loss of a precious item is big for the child. Acknowledge it by saying, “I can imagine how sad you are that your favourite doll got washed away.” Allow the child to feel what she is feeling. If she is hitting to express frustration say to her, “It’s OK to be angry but it’s not OK to hit me or others. Help your child express her anger in ways that won’t hurt, using words, play, or drawings. After allowing feelings to come out, talk about the things that are going well, make plans together for the future to help you and your child feel good. Take cues from the child and see if the child is wishing to share. Sharing cannot be forced. For some children emotions may come out many weeks later.

Answer their questions honestly and with patience. “What will happen to our house? What will happen to my toys and books? When can we go back?” Let them know what will happen next (to the degree that you know). Do not give false reassurances, e.g. saying “Your things are fine”. Instead, say “I know you are worried about your toys. I hope they will be fine. Maybe some things will be spoilt. We will need to see. I know this is hard for you.”

Keep children away from frightening TV images and scary conversations. Do familiar things, like singing a song you both like or telling a story, playing or doing an activity together.

Try to go back as soon as you can to a predictable routine: Mealtimes, bedtimes: a story, a prayer, cuddles time.

Leave children with familiar people when you have to be away. Tell them where you are going and when you will come back.

While there may be many things that we need to attend to and may even want to go out and help others, our physical presence and availability to our children is very important for them to feel reassured.

Natural and man-made calamities are an overwhelming experience for both parents and children. They are also a time to pull ourselves together to lead the way in keeping our family and community safe. These will be experiences that we will carry with us for the rest of our lives. Being trauma informed of the impact of such events is crucial to helping ourselves and our children. Together making sense of this reality will help us effectively deal with and overcome it.

Togetherwehaveanobligationtoraiseandeducateagenerationofhealthy,vibrantchildrenwholiveintheworldwithconfidenceandwisdom,understandthenaturalworld,andare committedtomakingtheworldabetterplace.

Pleasenote: If children continue to show signs of trauma such as nightmares, clinging a lot, being fearful or physical symptoms like bedwetting or wheezing, you may need to seek the help of a professional.

Kesang Menezes and Prerna Kalra are certified parent educators with Parenting Matters, an organization which empowers parents to build deeper connection in families.