Parents & Children Coping in Muddied Waters Amid Devastation.

Jeannine Marie Lenehan (CDS)

More than a decade ago my husband, children and I returned from an out of state visit to find our finished basement filled with water caused by a terrible storm.  The water had saturated our walls, furniture, electronics, and destroyed some of our most personal mementos.  While we were sad to lose those special items and the cleanup inconvenienced our lives we had not been completely upended.

Victims of natural and other disasters have a large, uphill climb and those families who have been completely displaced, lack peripheral support, and are economically disadvantaged will feel it most.  Homes, schools, and workplaces may have been destroyed or significantly affected, so it should come as no surprise that amongst the many things that will be tested will be a family’s coping skills. Some families may have suffered great losses, siblings may be staying in different locations, and for some of these children adherence to their medication or the threat of a serious reaction to an allergy may be just some of the issues parents are navigating.  

When we are in a time of need it is imperative parents have trusted and helpful individuals they can lean on for support and guidance.  Whether it’s a family member, friend, or faith-based organization these individuals or groups can play an important role in helping manage certain situations.  Their comfort and support actually helps regulate our behavior and provides us with a sense of equilibrium and well-being.  These healthy attitudes can create a positive trickle-down effect to our children and provide them with prosocial attitudes of faith, purpose, and determination.  Suniya Luthar, PhD, a professor of psychology at Arizona State University explains, “If you want a child to be functioning well, tend to the person who’s tending the child.” 

While parents and children will continue to be tested until their home life normalizes there are some step parents can take to mitigate the negative effects and help the family adapt:

  • Teach children about how natural disasters occur and how they affect families and communities.
    • This will help children to understand what has happened and why it has happened.
  • Parents should be prepared to accept all types of reactions from children.  
    • Creating language-rich environments that are sensitive, honest, yet hopeful, and allows children to express their needs and concerns can increase children’s sense of well-being and control.  
  • Assure children that you are there for them and they are safe.  
    • This fosters a sense of trust in the parent and the parent’s understanding of the best pathways to normalizing their home life and school life. 
  • Maintaining routines, to the best of your ability, can help create opportunities for children to work and play together and provide them with the peer support they need.  
    • If families are staying for extended periods in a shelter, parents are encouraged to create a community and routine in that space.  
  • Encourage children to exercise with you.
    • Even a short, gentle stretch has the unique ability to simultaneously exhilarate and relax our bodies while countering depression and alleviating stress.
      • Yoga, for example, emphasizes breath control, body postures, and meditation. It is a relaxing activity that requires minimal space and equipment, and is widely practiced for health and relaxation.
  • Encourage children to express compassion for one another.  
    • Explain that each child will process circumstances differently.  
  • Help children to promote their expression and find the positive in their situation through art, drama, music, photography, or writing.  
    • Creating art that shows them and their community working together to make the situation better can help children to process their feelings and give them a sense of control and self-efficacy. 
  • Encourage children to participate in the recovery effort.  Involvement on this level can establish a healthy sense of control for children, tweens, and teens and has shown to be an important marker of self advocacy.
    • For more information visit ERIC: “Katrina’s Children: Social Policy Considerations for Children in Disasters. Social Policy Report.”

Ultimately, parents are encouraged to be understanding of themselves and their children.  The reality is, it’s going to take time. A lack of control over our emotions can create chaos at a time when order is necessary to move forward. Assessing your family’s essential needs, vetting those resources that are available, and accepting assistance is a critical part of a family’s social and emotional recovery.  Once these supports are in place families can begin to reestablish their work-life, school-life, and home-life balance.   

For information on how to support victims of natural and other catastrophes please visit their city or state government websites and:

Jeannine Marie Lenehan
Child Development Specialist & Researcher
Founder and Principal


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