by Charlotte Hilton Andersen, REDBOOK
"This tornado's been on the ground for more than 10 minutes! This is quite the storm!" I looked down at my son's pale face, his arms wrapped around my waist as the newsman on the radio continued, "I repeat, seek shelter immediately. Don't look for it first because it's 'rain wrapped' so you won't see it. Don't wait, go to the most interior place in your house now." His eyes found mine. I knew my son's tight anxious expression well. First because he's had the same wrinkly eyebrowed expression of uncertainty since he was an infant and second because, well, it mirrors my own.
"Are we going to be ok?" he whispered. Thankfully we were. While the two tornadoes near us on Sunday in Minneapolis did a lot of damage only 1 person died, unlike the tornado that ravaged Joplin, Missouri, at almost the same time where 116 are reported dead with that number expected to rise. Knowing how scary things were here, my heart goes out to the people of Joplin-I can't imagine it being worse and yet it was for them.
Natural disasters are horrifying for anyone involved but I think as mothers they can be doubly so, as anyone who has herded a tiny band of little people into a tiny dank basement will know. Not only are we completely responsible for another life or lives but we also have the burden of comforting them, protecting them and afterward, explaining all of it in a way that children can understand when we may not even understand it ourselves.
I am a worrier in the strictest sense. I even have a diagnosed anxiety disorder, as does my husband. So you could say that our children were born to be terrified of this world-and that is true for two of them. (How the other two escaped our family curse I'm not sure but I'm grateful!) Over the years-and with the help of a lot of therapy-I've learned a few things about helping kids manage their anxiety in a world where scary things are always around the corner.
1. Start with yourself. There is a time and a place to freak out but the moment of crisis is not it. Children feed off of our emotions and if we are out of control then they will be too. I'm not saying you can't be scared but I am saying you can control how you express your fears. Kids need to feel confident in our ability to manage the situation (even if you can't totally).
2. Stay age appropriate. With tiny children, more information can just feel overwhelming and make them more upset. You don't need to pretend nothing is happening-they're not dumb -but only tell them as much as they need to know.
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3. Let them lead the way by answering their questions. The best place to start is to simply as them if they have questions about what's happening. I've found that what I expect my kids to be scared of (having surgery) is sometimes not what they are afraid of at all (he was afraid of the doctor's mask). Clear up any misinformation they might have and then ask them again. Keep answering until they stop asking. Repetition is okay.
4. Be open about your emotions. I know, I just told you to buck up Buttercup but there's a difference between saying, "This is really scary for me too. Why don't we all pray together/hug/sing a song?" and losing your nut. It's also important to find a safe place to vent all of your feelings. After things have settled, definitely find a good shoulder to cry on and a good ear to talk to. You can't be that safe place for your children if you don't have a safe place too.
5. Have a plan. Just knowing that the family has a fire escape/tornado/earthquake/child lost in the Mall of America (ahem) plan can go a long way in alleviating kids' (and grown-ups!) fears. Make a plan together as a family and then practice it.
6. Follow up with them. Kids remember way more than we give them credit for. A few days, a few weeks, even a few months after the traumatic event check in and see how they're feeling about it. Let them talk through it as many times as they want.
Have you ever been in a traumatic situation with your children? How did you help them deal with their worry?
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