Our hearts go out to each person whose life is being devastated by Hurricane Harvey – and we are filled with gratitude for each person who is helping to rescue and support those in need. Keeping our emotional balance during traumatic times is challenging – and we also need to remember to protect the emotional safety of our kids.
The following article was first written after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks – and has been shared many times since because the advice can apply to all kinds of disasters. Whether a disaster is caused by nature, an accident, a health emergency, or violence – whether it affects one person or millions – disasters are devastating.
Our challenge when faced with a disaster is to keep finding our balance. We need to remember that, in this uncertain world, the truest safety we have is the safety we create within ourselves.
Sudden disasters are a shocking reminder that we are vulnerable, that the physical security of ourselves, and those we care about is not guaranteed, and that our life can change in an instant.
If a disaster happens to us or to our loved ones, coping with the suffering and loss left in its wake is hard. We want life to be the same as it was before, and it’s not. Even if we are not directly affected, when we hear stories about disasters happening to others, we are likely to feel sorrow for those who are harmed – and fear that something like this might happen to us. Often, our kids feel the same way.
The reality is that we cannot control everything that happens to us. We have to accept that some things are out of our control so that we can live our lives to the fullest while taking charge of the things that are under our control.
The most powerful way we can respond to any tragedy is to support each other and to work together to create a better world for everyone. Even if we are frightened and sad ourselves, we can focus on creating safe emotional spaces for everyone to find healing, perspective, hope, and paths to healing action.
6 Steps to Creating Safety Inside Our Children and Ourselves
1. Get Support for Your Feelings, But Do NOT Process Your Feelings Around Children
In the mist of our own overwhelm, we must keep the needs of our children in mind. How adults respond will have huge impact on their children’s long-term well-being. For their emotional safety, our children need our hope and confidence, not our despair and fear. Be aware that children who don’t seem to be listening often hear everything as their adults talk on the phone or to each other. Give yourself space to express your feelings with other adults in places where younger kids cannot overhear you. Nurture yourself so that you can move into positive action.
2. Get Help If You Are Feeling Anxious or Depressed
When coping with a disaster, feeling overwhelmed with sadness, grief, anxiety, and rage is normal. In order to take care of our children for the long run, we must take care of ourselves. Even when bad things happen, our kids need to see us living our lives as joyfully and fully as possible. Talk with family or friends. Go to professional counseling if you need to. You do not have to be upset all alone.
You can manage a burst of anxiety by doing the same short and simple centering exercise we teach in our classes – feel your feet by wiggling your toes, feel your hands by opening them and pressing them against something, loosen your elbows and knees, take a breath and let it out, then another; now, look around and focus on something near you, if you can, let this be something that brings you joy or calm.
3. Listen To Kids
Give kids space to talk about feelings while focusing on things they CAN do to stay safe. Be supportive without diving into their upset feelings with them or processing them in detail
Give upset children the same reassurance we need for ourselves. For example, “This is scary and very sad. But we will be okay. We can keep ourselves safe most of the time, if we know how to do a few things and have a safety plan.”
Because kids might not talk about their feelings, we recommend occasionally asking your children and teens, in a matter-of-fact way, “Is there anything that you have been wondering or worrying about that you have not told me?”
For more suggestions, see Helping Children Regain Their Emotional Safety After A Tragedy
4. Talk With Your Child Before They Hear About the Disaster From Someone Else
When a major tragedy takes place, kids are likely to hear or see something either at school, through the Internet, from television, on the car radio, or by listening to the adults around them talking to each other. While we don’t want to create more fear, we do want to address any concerns that children already have in ways that are age-appropriate and empowering.
If you believe your child might learn about a disaster from others, explain what happened in a calm and reassuring way.
• First, set the stage. For example, “Something sad happened that hurt a lot of people. We are okay, but you might hear about this, and I want you to know what happened.”
• Next, state simply what happened with no vivid details. For example, “There is a big fire near us. We might have to leave quickly.“ Or, “There is a big flood far away. Many people are having to leave their homes.” Or, “ A few people did something very bad. They crashed airplanes into some big buildings and many people died.”
• Then, provide truthful reassurance. For example, “I am going to do everything in my power to make SURE we are safe!” Or, “Even though this is far away from here, let’s think of what we can do so people know we care.”
• Finally, encourage continued communication. For example, “Do you have any questions? If you get worried, or start thinking about it a lot, I want you to tell me so we can talk.”
5. Limit Children’s Exposure to the Media so They Are not Bombarded with Terrifying Images
Just as you would control what your children eat so that they do not get sick, control what media your children are seeing and hearing as much as possible. Consider limiting your own exposure as well. There is a difference between staying informed so we can take action if need be and traumatizing ourselves unnecessarily by overexposure to difficult news.
6. Focus on What You CAN Do
Both children and adults have the power to make a difference through daily actions. By working together as a community, your actions can create change. Show caring and solidarity for others who are struggling by doing supportive actions, even simple ones like posting a caring message on social media or providing a useful link – like this article – to those you think might be helped by it.
You can also get involved more or take stronger action. For example, you can send donations to relief organizations. Even small amounts help. You can work together with others to prepare for the next disaster. You can speak up against the harm that people do to each other because of prejudice and lack of understanding.
Viktor Frankl was a psychotherapist who was imprisoned in concentration camps in World War II. In that hopeless terrifying setting, he came to the conclusion that, while he could not control most outside events, he could choose how he would respond to those events. He created a form of psychotherapy called Logotherapy, which helps people heal by making meaning of their lives.
Most often, we can take charge of our safety. When things are out of our control, it is important to remember that, like Viktor Frankl, we can still choose to create safety within ourselves.