Being in a tornado can be very frightening, and the days, weeks, and months following the storm can be very stressful. Most families recover over time, especially with the support of relatives, friends, and their community. But different families may have different experiences during and after a tornado, and how long it takes them to recover will depend on how frightening the tornado was and the extent of damage and loss.
Children may react differently to the tornado and its aftermath depending on their age, developmental level, and prior experiences. Parents should expect that different children may respond to events in different ways and be supportive and understanding of different reactions.
We have gathered information on different reactions your children may have as well as healthy ways to respond.
Tips for Helping Adolescent Children
If your adolescent’s reaction is…
DETACHMENT, GUILT, SHAME
HOW TO RESPOND: Provide a safe time to discuss with your teen the events and their feelings. Emphasize that these feelings are common, and correct excessive self-blame with realistic explanations of what actually could have been done.
WHAT TO SAY: “Many teens–and adults–feel like you do, angry and blaming themselves that they could have done more. You’re not at fault. Remember even the first responders said there was nothing more we could have done.”
ACTING OUT BEHAVIOR
Acting out behavior can include using alcohol or drugs, sexually acting out, or accident-prone behavior.
HOW TO RESPOND: Help teens understand that acting out behavior is a dangerous way to express strong feelings (like anger) over what happened. Limit access to alcohol and drugs. Talk about the danger of high-risk sexual activity. On a time-limited basis, keep a closer watch on where they are going and what they are planning to do.
WHAT TO SAY: “Many teens–and some adults–feel out of control and angry after a disaster like this. They think drinking or taking drugs will help somehow. It’s very normal to feel that way–but it’s not a good idea to act on it.”
FEAR OF RECURRENCE OR CONCERN FOR OTHERS
HOW TO RESPOND: Help to identify different reminders (people, places, sounds, smells, feelings, time of day) and to clarify the difference between the event and the reminders that occur after it. Explain to teens that media coverage of the disaster can trigger fears of it happening again. Encourage constructive activities on behalf of others, but do not let them burden themselves with undue responsibility.
WHAT TO SAY OR DO: “When you’re reminded, you might try saying to yourself, ‘I am upset now because I am being reminded, but it is different now because there is no hurricane and I am safe.’” Suggest, “Watching the news reports could make it worse, because they are playing the same images over and over. How about turning it off now?”
Tips for Helping School-Age Children
If your school-aged child’s reaction is…
HOW TO RESPOND: Give clear explanations of what happened whenever your child asks. Avoid details that would scare your child. Correct any misinformation that your child has about whether there is a present danger. Let them know that their family is safe. Remind children that there are people working to keep families safe and that your family can get more help if needed. Let your children know what they can expect to happen next.
WHAT TO SAY: “I know other kids said that more tornadoes are coming, but we are now in a safe place.”
FEELINGS OF BEING RESPONSIBLE
School-age children may have concerns that they were somehow at fault, or should have been able to change what happened. They may hesitate to voice their concerns in front of others.
HOW TO RESPOND: Provide opportunities for children to voice their concerns to you. Offer reassurance and tell them why it was not their fault.
WHAT TO SAY: “After a disaster like this, lots of kids–and parents too–keep thinking, ‘What could I have done differently?’ or ‘I should have been able to do something.’ That doesn’t mean they were at fault.”
AGGRESSIVE OR RESTLESS BEHAVIOR
HOW TO RESPOND: Encourage the child to engage in recreational activities and exercise as an outlet for feelings and frustration.
WHAT TO SAY: “I know you didn’t mean to slam that door. It must be hard to feel so angry.” “How about if we take a walk? Sometimes getting our bodies moving helps with strong feelings.”
Tips for Helping Preschool-Age Children
If your preschool-aged child’s reaction is…
HELPLESSNESS AND PASSIVITY
Young children know they can’t protect themselves. In a disaster, they feel even more helpless. They want to know their parents will keep them safe. They might express this by being unusually quiet or agitated.
HOW TO RESPOND: Provide comfort, rest, food, water, and opportunities for play and drawing. Provide ways to turn spontaneous drawing or playing about traumatic events to something that would make them feel safer or better. Reassure your child that you and other grownups will protect them.
WHAT TO DO: Give your child more hugs, hand holding, or time in your lap. Make sure there is a special safe area for your child to play with proper supervision.
CONFUSION ABOUT THE DANGER BEING OVER
Young children can overhear things from adults and older children, or see things on TV, or just imagine that it is happening all over again. They believe the danger is closer to home, even if it happened further away.
HOW TO RESPOND: Give simple, repeated explanations as needed, even every day. Make sure they understand the words you are using. Find out what other words or explanations they have heard and clarify inaccuracies. If you are at some distance from the danger, it is important to tell your child that the danger is not near you.
WHAT TO DO: Continue to explain to your child that the disaster has passed and that you are away from the danger. Draw, or show on a map, how far away you are from the disaster area, and that where you are is safe. “See? The disaster was way over there, and we’re way over here in this safe place.”
HOW TO RESPOND: Put common feelings into words, such as anger, sadness, and worry about the safety of parents, friends, and siblings. Do not force them to talk, but let them know they can talk to you any time.
WHAT TO SAY: Draw simple “happy faces” for different feelings on paper plates. Tell a brief story about each one, such as, “Remember when we heard the wind outside and you had a worried face like this?” Say something like, “Children can feel really sad when their home is damaged.” Provide art or play materials to help them express themselves. Then use feeling words to check out how they felt. “This is a really scary picture. Were you scared when you heard the wind?”
Tips for Helping Infants and Toddlers
If your infant or toddler…
...HAS PROBLEMS GOING TO SLEEP OR SLEEPING THROUGH THE NIGHT
UNDERSTAND: When children are scared, they want to be with people who help them feel safe, and they worry when you are not together. If you were separated during the disaster, going to bed alone may remind your child of that separation. Bedtime is a time for remembering because we are not busy doing other things. Children often dream about things they fear and can be scared of going to sleep.
HOW TO HELP: If you want, let your child sleep with you. Let them know this is just for now. Have a bedtime routine: a story, a prayer, cuddle time. Tell them the routine (every day), so they knows what to expect. Hold them and tell them that they are safe, that you are there and will not leave. Understand that they are not being difficult on purpose. This may take time, but when they feel safer, they will sleep better.
...CAN'T STAND TO BE AWAY FROM YOU
UNDERSTAND: Children who cannot yet speak or say how they feel may show their fear by clinging or crying. Goodbyes may remind your child of any separation you had related to the disaster. Your child is not trying to manipulate or control you. They are scared. They may also get scared when other people (not just you) leave.
HOW TO HELP: Try to stay with your child and avoid separations right now. For brief separations (store, bathroom), help your child by naming their feelings and linking them to what they have been through. Let them know you love them and that this goodbye is different, you’ll be back soon. For longer separations, have them stay with familiar people, tell them where you are going and why, and when you will come back. Let them know you will think about them. Leave a photo or something of yours and call if you can. When you come back, tell them you missed them, thought about them, and did come back. You will need to say this over and over.
...THROWS TANTRUMS, CRANKY, OR HITS YOU
UNDERSTAND: Even before the disaster, your child may have had tantrums. They are a normal part of being little. It’s frustrating when you can’t do things and when you don’t have the words to say what you want or need. Now, your child has a lot to be upset about (just like you) and may really need to cry and yell. For children, hitting is a way of expressing anger. When children can hit adults, they may feel unsafe. It’s scary to be able to hit someone who’s supposed to protect you. Hitting can also come from seeing other people hit each other.
HOW TO HELP: Tolerate tantrums more than you usually would, and respond with love rather than discipline. You might not normally do this, but things are not normal. If they cry or yell, stay with them and let them know you are there for them. Reasonable limits should be set if tantrums become frequent or are extreme. Each time your child hits, let them know that this is not okay. Hold their hands, so they can’t hit, have them sit down. Say something like, “It’s not okay to hit, it’s not safe. When you hit, you are going to need to sit down.” Help them express anger in other ways (play, talk, draw).
This information has been gathered and adapted from the National Child Traumatic Stress Network.