As a child and teen development expert, I’ve written many articles about how to help children deal with scary, tragic, and unpredictable events. From the 2008 earthquake in China to the Tsunami in Thailand to the more recent Sandy Hook shootings and Boston Marathon Bombing, I’ve advised parents on them all. But yesterday’s F4/F5 tornado was different for me. It touched my family personally.
My children were both born in Moore, Oklahoma. Their adoptions were completed there. And their whole birth family, whom we love dearly and who we are very much in touch with, all still live there. We think of ourselves as united by fate to become one family. So as they were trying to reach us through a downed phone system, we in New Jersey were on pins and needles last night until we heard from all of them that they were safe.
In the meantime, I had to make sure that I responded appropriately to the situation by setting the right tone in an effort to reassure my children and also honor their need for answers. Here are 7 key steps that are so helpful to remember in times like this:
While your emotions may be running high, keep control of them while talking to your children. Children absorb the intensity of our emotions and react accordingly.
Remind your children that they are safe:
In this case, the tornado has died. It can’t hurt anyone else. Children may fear that the tornado will be coming through their community next so arming them with this information can help them relax.
Be a good listener:
If your children want to talk about what happened, listen to them. Sometimes simply being heard can assuage their fears. They may want to repeat the facts or they may want to ask questions. Be there for them without judgment.
Answer your child’s questions:
Children may want to know how tornadoes start, how they end and where they come from. I know, we may not all have the answers immediately—but Google does! In age-appropriate language, answer their questions or, if you don’t know, simply say so. For many children, getting their questions answered keeps them from worrying.
Shut off the news:
Make sure the information about this graphic event comes from you rather than from the TV. The news is meant for adults, not children. The detailed nature of national coverage can be too much for young children and feed their fears even when that is not your intention.
Don’t diminish your children’s feelings:
Of course we don’t want our children to be scared. But saying “don’t be scared” or “there’s nothing to worry about” can invalidate their feelings. Instead, be understanding, provide the facts and be there. Ask them what, if anything, they need to feel better and listen to where they are now with their emotions.
Allow them to do something to help:
Whether it’s collecting goods for people in need, drawing pictures to send love ones or writing a letter, kids, like adults, feel better when they can help people. My daughter called and left a message for her birth mother, birth father and birth grandmother today telling them “I love you and I’m so glad you’re safe.” She knew it was one thing she could do to brighten their day.
As always, talk about the positive people highlighted as helpers during this frightening event: Teachers who protected students. Athletes who donated money to the Red Cross. Rescuers who found over 100 people and brought them to safety. Tragedy can bring about a wonderful and beautiful side of humanity.
Oklahoma has a long way to go in the wake of this incredible storm. But today, our gratitude is great for the safety of our loved ones. It is a lesson in what’s important—and if we can pass that on to our children, perhaps they will learn to seek out the positive in other future events that touch our lives.
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