This is a follow-up post to Helping Your Kids Through a Hurricane: Thoughts on Irma
What about after the storm?
My family’s home base is in Florida. Both of my boys were in Florida for Hurricane Irma after spending the last couple of months with me in Mexico. My oldest, who is 18, drove with a friend to Indiana to stay with his grandparents. My youngest went with his dad to Orlando. I stayed in touch with them both the whole time to make sure they were doing ok, processing their feelings, and asking for what they needed.
Now that the storm is over, I’m checking in with them in a different way. I’ve been busy eating my comfort foods here, watching Denis Phillips nearly 24/7 as the Hurricane Center tried to figure out where this storm was going so that I could advise them on the safest place for them to stay. It was stressful for me and I was pretty far away from Irma. If you were impacted directly by Irma, here are some things to think about now that the storm is over, at least as a hurricane.
1. Check in with yourself.
Is your heart beating fast? Are you completely stressed? Was there damage to your home or property? Is it still unknown? Ask what you need right now. When you are feeling more centered and connected, you’ll be more able to connect with your kids.
Personally, I’m still eating a lot of Oaxacan (Mexican) chocolate and papas (potatoes). My favorite comfort stress food right now is a baked potato with mole (a chocolate chili sauce- don’t knock it if you haven’t tried it). I also went through an 8.1 earthquake here on Friday, so I’m a little stressed! Maybe you’re stress-eating, too? Or you’ve eaten all your hurricane snacks and have gained 10 pounds since last week. Or maybe you’re not eating at all. This is how it’s showing up for me, just as an example. I don’t have to be “back to normal” before I can talk to my kids. But I do need to at least acknowledge how I’m feeling for myself so that I can be there for my kids.
2. What brain state are you in?
Green? Yellow? Red? If you’re on green, go talk to your kids. If you’re on yellow, ask what you need and what you’re feeling in this moment before you go talk to your kids. This may be as good as you’re going to get. Don’t be afraid to express your feelings with your kids. It’s ok to be scared, sad, or elated now that the storm is over. They need to know it’s ok to feel their feelings, too.
If you’re on red, what do you need? Do you need to go for a run or run inside your house if it isn’t safe outside yet? Do you need to hit pillows or a punching bag to move through the energy? Put what you’re feeling into words. It goes a long way to helping you to regulate and reconnect the regions of your brain.
3. Check in with your kids. Are they on green? Yellow? Red?
My son just spent Hurricane Irma at a Disney hotel in Orlando. They never lost power and his post-hurricane picture looked like this picture to the right. He’s on green. I’m still planning to talk to him about what it was like for him and let him tell me the story, even though he seems fine. It’s still a big deal to leave your home with the things that are most important to you, not knowing if your house will still be there once the storm is over.
If your child is in distress and on yellow, slow down and just be together. Unless you’re not in a safe place, this needs to be the priority. Listen. Ask simple questions like: “What was it like for you? Was it scary? Was there a time you were afraid? Even a little bit?” If you were afraid, yourself, you can share a brief story with them (not to relive or to scare your child, but to let them know that even grown-ups are scared sometimes) such as, “When the winds were howling, that was super scary, even for me. Did you hear them howling, too?”
Figuring out Red
If your child is on red, it may look like shock. Your child may be very quiet – almost too quiet. Pay attention to whether touch is regulating and calming or not. Some kids will want touch and others will be too overwhelmed for touch. Respect what they need and keep the talking to a minimum until they’re more regulated.
If they’re outwardly red (yelling, throwing things), calm yourself, and name that they’re on red and in survival, if only for yourself. Sometimes it helps to get them moving and doing something together. The word to remember for red is STOP. Unless you’re in physical danger and a tree is about to fall on your house, stop everything else and pay attention to the distress. Your goal is regulation, and then you can help talk about what happened.
4. Tell the story of what happened.
You can use puppets, stuffed animals or other toys, or even draw little faces on your fingers. It doesn’t have to be complicated. Slowly, talk about what happened beginning with the very first time you knew something was happening. Pause. Create the space for your kids to show their story, or tell their story if they are older and have words for it. They may have big feelings that may or may not seem related. If you open up the invitation to share feelings, they’ll be related even if you can’t see the connection. Just watch and be curious. Allow them to express their feelings and to show you what it was like for them.
This is a big part of the work that I do with families. Kids soak up this special time to share a story, especially about something that happened to them, when it is done in connection. The more this is done in the spirit of, “We all experienced something and we’re going to be together to listen to each other’s experiences,” the better.
5. If something really overwhelming happened at any point, make sure you have a layer of support for yourself.
We don’t always know what was traumatic or overwhelming for a child, but it will come out in their story. Those are opportunities to help them to find their strength in the retelling.
If you know it was traumatic for your whole family, please find another well-regulated person who did not go through the storm or the same experience with you, who can be there to listen as you all retell the story. It’s best if this person is a fairly regulated and calm person in general. Just holding the space for everyone can help the whole family to slow down and integrate the story (creating the space to connect thoughts, feelings, and body sensations). It helps to re-pattern the places where everyone felt powerless by finding the strengths in what everyone did.
You see, you’re still here, so something went right. Sometimes it can be hard to see those things, but they’re there. Sharing together, slowly, in connection, can help everyone to settle in their bodies and move forward connected with each other and the whole story. Make space for ALL the feelings before anyone starts saying that “we should just be thankful we’re alive.” It’s true, but it’s invalidating when processing feelings and experiences.
6. Babies and toddlers need space and connection to integrate their experiences, too.
Speak slowly for a baby. They process 7-10 times more slowly than adults. Say something about what happened and wait. And wait. And wait. Watch their facial expressions, their emotional expression, how they’re moving their bodies. They’ll show you the story of what it was like for them. For more on processing with babies and very young children, see the Healing Stories series in our Learning Center.
I didn’t know how to help support my children when they were babies, so I love being able to share this information with other parents. It’s so helpful in so many situations with small children – if they have a big fall, if someone is really sick, if there’s a separation or divorce. They need help and there are things that we can do as parents to help them!
The reality is that, at one time or another, we’ll all probably experience something big in our lives, whether it is a hurricane, another natural disaster, or something else that wasn’t expected. We don’t have to wait until our children show signs of distress to try to help them. There’s so much we can do as things are happening and immediately after to lessen the impact of those experiences. By the time anyone qualifies for a clinical diagnosis, it’s at least 4-6 weeks after symptoms have appeared and that can mean a lot of suffering before anyone even begins to get help. And the kind of help that is offered is usually not integrative help that addresses the cause, but band-aids to alleviate symptoms.
If you’ve been through a difficult experience with the recent storms, please feel free to reach out. I’ll be offering support services to those who need them through some free calls and even some free individual consultations. I want to make sure you get the support you need. Let me know how I can help!
Stay safe out there, everyone!