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  • Writer's pictureK.C. Dreisbach, LMFT

3 Tips to Help Kids Cope with Disaster Experiences

Updated: Apr 8, 2022

Last weekend, the unthinkable happened… my family experienced a fire in our home. Power-lines sparked, lighting a row of 7 cypress trees on fire in our backyard. A healthy wind kicked up, sending embers across the yard, catching our grass, deck, and patio furniture on fire. We weren’t home, thank goodness, but we were called by neighbors who urged us to come home right away.

When we arrived, ash peppered our front yard, and the air was thick with the smell of smoke and that too familiar “forest fire” smell. Other than some minor roof damage and broken windows, our home survived the inferno, but only just barely per the firefighter’s report. We were lucky…. Despite our luck, this event was still jarring to our 5-year-old daughter who had been fearing a fire in our home for some time. Her worst fears had been realized.

As parents, we work hard to try and prepare our children for natural disasters or other traumatic events. Deep down inside, however, you never believe it’s going to happen to you. What do you do when your worst fears have come to life and you are left to pick up the pieces? How do manage the emotional roller-coaster that you AND your child are sure to go through? How do you parent through trauma?

As a Marriage and Family Therapist, working with young children and traumatic events is no mystery to me, and now, I have personal experience on how to help you manage these murky waters. Today on the blog, we’ll be discussing 3 key points to remember as you help your child process a traumatic experience.

1. Model to your kids how you want them to act.

Something that I have written frequently about in previous blogs is the importance of modeling to your children the behavior you want to see in them. Oftentimes, we forget that children are not “mini” adults, but rather are growing, developing creatures.

As parents, we are raising human beings, and in that comes the need to teach them how to act and interact with the world around them. Children take their cues from the significant adults in their lives on everything they do especially in emergency situations and during traumatic events.

If you begin to panic, I guarantee, so will they. If you manage the situation with a calm and collected attitude, they will experience less anxiety over the situation, and will most likely model a similar attitude. You, as the parent, are one of your greatest tools when it comes to parenting your child through disaster experiences.

2. Allow your children to talk about the event… over and over again. Don’t discount their emotional experience!

How your child will process a traumatic event will largely depend on their age and developmental level. The important tip I want you to remember here is to offer your child the space, time, and opportunity to process the event in whatever way is best for them, without judgment from you or other family members.

Verbal children will most likely choose to talk about it… over and over and over again. Let them! The conversation may be redundant, boring, or even triggering for you, but rehashing the story allows the child to work through their own emotions about the event and catalogue it in their mind.

Other children may internalize their emotional experience. Although this isn’t necessarily bad, it can lead to symptoms of anxiety, depression, and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). If this is your kiddo, offer alternative forms of self-expression, such as art, music, dance, etc.

Young children may want to “play” it out using dolls, stuffed animals, or other toys to replay the experience. Although most parents may not mind their child playing “firefighter” with their dolls, watching your child play out a sexual molestation, however, can be very upsetting for parents, and may cause you to want to “end” that play session. Don’t! As much as it can be disturbing to witness, allowing your child to play out the trauma is therapeutic, even if it doesn’t seem like it. Putting an end to the play actually sends a troubling message to your child… “I’m bad” or “My feelings are bad.” Let’s unpack that a little further….

Big traumatic events, such as a fire in your home, have most likely affected YOU too! As such, we, as the adults in the situation, are also trying to process the experience. We are dealing with our own emotions about what occurred. As such, you might find that, as your child is working to process the trauma, their re-tellings or enactments may rub you the wrong way, serving as a reminder of something you'd rather forget. The natural reaction might be to change the subject of conversation or suggest other themes/ideas of play for your child. Try to avoid doing this because these behaviors send a subtle, unspoken message that event is a "taboo." Let's look at an example.

Let's say every time you try to talk about your household finances with your spouse, they change the subject or tell you “not to worry about it.” Eventually, you will begin to become suspicious that your spouse is hiding something, or something is wrong.

This increases your anxiety, makes you worry about what is happening, and can even make you begin questioning your spouse’s honesty with you, as well as your relationship together. This same process occurs with your child too.

Repeatedly shutting down their attempts to talk/deal with the trauma can cause your child to feel more anxiety surrounding the event, which will cause their mental thoughts to begin making negative associations between themselves and the trauma. Over time, this can develop into chronic mental health conditions, such as anxiety and depression.

3. Maintain structure and routine as best as possible.

After a disaster experience, life seems as though it gets turned upside down on its head. Any semblance of routine and structure goes out the window. Typically, you have a ton of things on your plate to tackle, such as calling insurance companies, reaching out to family members, or making arrangements for the death of a loved one. No matter the traumatic event, there are suddenly 100s of tasks that need completion, and this digs into your busy life, pulling time away from other really important tasks.

This tip is all about returning your home-life back to normalcy. Kids thrive best in environments that have a routine/structure that is followed consistently from day to day. All children have a normal level of “anxiety,” something I simply refer to as “Natural Anxiety,” that helps them manage their day to day lives. In fact, we all have it (i.e. fear of a stranger, anxiety before taking a test, feeling nervous before having to talk to your boss, etc.).

As adults, the hope is that we have learned to manage this anxiety in helpful and appropriate ways. Children, on the other hand, due to their age and vulnerability, are less capable of managing this stress, and they look to their caregivers for cues on how to cope and deal with it.

Consistent routine and structure serve as a way to help reduce these anxiety levels in children by providing them with a sense of comfort in knowing what is going to happen next in their lives. It creates a sense of security and a feeling of safety. I could go into the long details here about how structure/routine are vital to a child’s sense of well-being, but it would take too long. For the purposes of this article, I just want you to understand that providing these things in your child’s life is an easy way to help achieve a happy, healthy, and balanced home-life.

Now, when a major life event seems to derail your whole existence, your children are experiencing that same sense of derailment too. The event can leave them feeling shaken, even if they aren’t voicing this to you. Re-establishing routine into your child’s life is a key component in parenting through traumatic events. This helps to signal to your child’s brain that there is nothing to fear.

In some cases, folks I’ve worked with will tell me, “How am I supposed to go back to living my life? It’s never going to be the same again.” For some traumatic events, such as a death, this is a very true statement. Life may never return to the way it used to be. My response is that it’s not about making things “go back to normal,” per say. It’s about picking up the pieces and creating a “new normal.”

When it comes to parenting kids through these major life events, re-establishing structure, consistency, and routine helps your child to return to a state of feeling safe and secure, which in turn, helps to reduce the likelihood of your child developing bigger complications down the road, such as an anxiety disorder.

We’ve navigated through my 3 tips to help you parent your child through a major life event. Always remember that, if life seems too overwhelming for you, or if your child seems to be experiencing significant emotional distress, you can always reach out to a mental health professional for help. You can call your insurance company or check out online databases, such Psychology Today, where you can research and find psychotherapists in your area.

I hope you found this article useful. Feel free to ask questions or leave comments if you would like more guidance on this topic. For more great parenting advice, download my free mini-ebook, Eliminating Temper Tantrums: 4 Keys to Mastering Your Child's Anger Outbursts. Or, you can check my full-length series, The Art of Parenting. With 5-stars on Amazon, Bookbub, and Barnes & Noble, you can't go wrong!

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Krystal Dreisbach is a licensed therapist, mindset coach, adjunct professor of counseling, and published author.  Her specialties include depression treatment, anxiety counseling, stress management support, and mindset coaching.  Learn more about Krystal and see how she can help you live a better life.

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