On the first night of the storm, my family of four (and one dog) huddled inside the laundry room for yet another tornado warning. Flood alerts came across my phone and pictures of disaster filled my Facebook feed. I looked at my six year old daughter who was sleeping at my feet and began to wonder “how will I explain this to her? How can I find the words to help her understand the nightmare happening around her and help her find hope?”
Honest answer: for three days, I told her nothing. It took me that long to find the words and because we had the unique privilege of living in a neighborhood that emerged from the storm unscathed, I was able to avoid the conversation. I know most families in our city were not as lucky. When we did talk, these are the resources I found helpful.
Children have specific needs when dealing with disaster. Start with an honest evaluation of what your family has experienced, move on to a story of a friend or neighbor with a different experience, and end by helping your child think about ways they can engage in recovery. Keep the conversation age-appropriate but don’t sugar-coat stories. Turn off the constant stream of media filled with scary images and words. Be aware of your own stress levels and practice self-care. Constantly point out the places that you see hope in response to the storm. Assure your child that God does not send storms to punish but instead sends people to act out of love as the city recovers.
We believe in a God of love. A God who walks with us in the storm and uses us to share that love with others. God is in Houston, and in disasters around the world, in every act of hope that we see.
Some key things to remember as you focus on HOPE:
HELP: As you talk, look for opportunities to help your child identify the “helpers.” First responders, neighbors, pastors, friends, strangers who are helping one another. These people are acting out God’s love in their communities.
OPEN: Be open to questions your child has about the storm. Answer them as accurately as you can and if you don’t know the answer look for it together. Invite your child to ask more questions as they come up and keep that line open.
PLAY: Make time for play, it is how children process. Watch your child’s imaginary play. Notice when their anxieties and questions are interpreted in imaginary worlds. Use this as a jumping off point for further conversation or join in their imaginary world.
ENGAGE: Find a way for your child to contribute to the recovery. Make food for first responders, collect supplies for shelters or those who are cleaning out houses, or donate books to schools that have been flooded. Tangible action items help children (and adults) become God’s hands in the world and see that they can be part of healing. If your house was flooded, help your child engage by providing routines as much as possible. Something as simple as a nightly bedtime prayer, book, or song will provide comfort in an uncertain time.
Finally, pray together. Invite your child to name their feelings and their heroes. Thank God for the gift of hope and the knowledge that Jesus calms storms.
Additional resources on talking with children:
- Sesame Street Hurricane Tool Kit
- Sesame Street Printable Tool Kit
- PBS on Talking With Kids
- The National Child Traumatic Stress Network-Helping Kids After a Hurricane
- FEMA: Keeping Children Safe in Hurricane Sandy’s Wake
- Red Cross Disaster Safety for Children
Responding to a Natural Disaster
A message from Executive Director Peggy Hahn