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Helping children understand the recent tornados

June 5, 2013
By Stacey Brown , Fort Myers Beach Bulletin, Fort Myers Beach Observer

It's been a difficult year for parents. The Boston bombing, the Newton shootings and the Oklahoma tornados all have parents hugging their children a little tighter than usual. Understandably.

The feeling of powerlessness is incredibly frightening for both adults and children. When parents drop their children off at school, they assume that they will be cared for and safe and that they will pick them up in the afternoon and talk about homework and give them snacks. When these extremely random and (fortunately) rare traumatic events take place, everyone feels it. Deep in their hearts.

As I read the articles about the tornado victims with tears streaming down my face, I think of the children and how frightened they must have been. I think of the utter helplessness that their parents must have felt. I think of the bravery and courage of the teachers and other adults who covered the children's bodies to protect them.

I think of my own children who, just last week, practiced a tornado drill at their elementary school near downtown Fort Myers.

The fourth graders were all dressed up and were making final preparations for their Famous Americans Project. The children were all dressed up and practicing their speeches last Thursday morning. Theodore Roosevelt, Hellyn Keller, Jim Henson, Lucille Ball and Paul Revere were all there. I had just straightened Edwin Hubble's hat and had complimented Pocahontes' beautiful outfit. I was making final adjustments to my daughter's Lucille Ball wig and 1950's pearl necklace. Perfection.

Then, the announcement came over the loud speaker that it was time for a tornado drill. Now? At 8:15 in the morning? Today? So, all of the Famous Americans and others, less famous, but just as important, hustled to their positions in the hallway and on the bathroom floors. The children curled up in a little ball with their hands over their heads and were absolutely silent. I was there to witness this surreal scene. There they all were..... all of the Famous Americans... crouched on the bathroom floor covering their heads and feeling a little nervous. I took a snapshot of the scene with my cell phone as a bizarre, yet oddly artistic twist to our morning and hoped that these children wouldn't have nighttime fears about tornados that night and that they would never have to deal with a real tornado.

Now, I'm thinking about tornado drills in a very different way.

As a professional counselor, I know what to do and I can offer some advice on how to comfort children. I also know what to do and can also offer some advice for adults on how to help, how to take care of ourselves and how to heal from traumatic events.

As a mother, I can only think of all of those Famous Americans... children... huddled on the floor in our very safe area in Florida. And those other Americans... huddled on the floor in Oklahoma.

When talking to children about this kind of disaster, parents have to be strong and reflect confidence and assurance. It's critical for parents to help children feel safe.

- Looking at the facts about disasters can help. While the very small children should be completely shielded from knowledge about these kinds of events and sheltered from even knowing that disasters like this exist, it is critical for parents to talk factually about these events with older children.

- Monitor the media exposure. Don't let your children watch televised reports about the tornados. Seeing that big storm played over and over again can be really frightening to children, raising anxiety and stress. Don't obsess about the coverage yourself.

- Do not lie to children. Put it in perspective and give the facts. Saying something like "There was a very big storm and it did a lot of damage to buildings. Some people were hurt and killed" might be a good place to start.

- Be calm. Focus on keeping your emotions and reactions intact. Children pick up on the emotional responses of their parents and aren't often able to sort out what it all means.

- Remind children about family safety drills and procedures. If you don't have a safety plan for your family, get one. Rehearse it and help children to know what to do in the case of an emergency. Be sure that children know their names, addresses and parent phone numbers. Being knowledgeable helps children to have confidence in the case of a real emergency.

- Focus on the positives. In situations like this where bad things have happened and people feel powerless, it's good to quote Fred Rogers. Reportedly, his mother used to tell him "Look for the helpers. There are always helpers." Focusing on stories of survival, endurance, patience, love and kindness help children to feel comforted and less worried.

- To further help children process events like this, artwork and story book reading is very healing. Drawing and hearing stories of survival and renewal help.

- Take care of yourself. Just as the airline stewardess says, you have to take care of yourself in order for you to be able to take care of anyone else. Stories like this can trigger underlying anxieties and remind you of past events that might have been similar for you. It can also cause you to feel emotional or hyper-vigilant. Children will notice this change and will be confused by it.

- Reach out for help from a professional counselor for additional help. If you or your child are struggling with symptoms of anxiety, depression, post traumatic stress as a result of this, or any other situation in which you feel powerless or victimized or scared or hurt, educate yourselves.

-- Stacey Brown, MA, LMHC, NCC is the Director of the Human Services Program at Edison State College and a professional therapist in private practice in Fort Myers.



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