How do children experience catastrophic events like Hurricanes Harvey and Irma and the wildfires in Northern California? Turns out, not the same way adults do. In this Q&A for families, Dr. Elanna Yalow, Chief Academic Officer of KinderCare Education, talks about the power of presence, the importance of play, and the healing benefits of your open arms.
The way young children experience natural disasters like the hurricanes in the southeast and the wildfires of northern California can be very different from the way adults experience them.
Consider this common scene, witnessed by so many families in the Houston area: water flowing down the street, rising into the yard, perhaps even pouring into the house.
Adults, even when stressed or worried, can use logic to formulate a plan of action (such as moving upstairs with the flashlights and cell phones). Young children, on the other hand, may only experience, well…REALLY big feelings. That’s a big difference. Since young children don’t yet have the words to express their emotions—nor the ability to regulate them fully—the impact from these kinds of events can feel much more overwhelming and continue long after the event has passed.
“It’s important for families to pay extra attention to how their children are doing after the devastating events we’ve seen recently,” says Dr. Yalow, “not all young children will have lingering effects from their experiences, but it’s important to be alert for signs of stress and to be ready to provide extra comfort and support.”
We asked Dr. Yalow a few questions that we hope will help all families with young children in the affected areas understand what their kids might be going through—and help them get through it.
Have more questions for Dr. Yalow? Write her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Q: How do young children experience things like hurricanes, floods and fires?
Dr. Yalow: It’s important to remember that every child is different, and not all children will respond to natural disasters in the same way. Some children actually may be fascinated to see their street full of water. For others, even if they only saw the floods on television, the water may have looked overwhelming—like something that’s going to sweep over them and pull them under.
My best advice is that you shouldn’t make assumptions about how your child is doing. Instead, tune into his behavior, look for cues, and check in.
Q: What kinds of behaviors might indicate my child is stressed?
Dr. Yalow: Trust your gut. You know your child better than anyone else, so there’s no single set of behaviors you’re looking for. What you should really look for is behavior that is not typical for your child. Some children may be more withdrawn, some may be more aggressive, some may be more clingy. They may worry another hurricane / flood / fire will come or they may express worry about their safety or the safety of their pets—or even their toys! And again, not all children will experience stress; some children will be able to cope with what happened.
I want to emphasize that if you suspect your child is having a serious stress response or your family went through something particularly difficult, seek out child counseling experts, just as you would take her to the doctor if she were sick. This doesn’t make you a less able parent; it makes you a caring parent.
Q: How should I talk about the hurricane, flood or fire to my three- or four-year-old? I honestly don’t know what to say.
Dr. Yalow: This is a wonderful chance for you to be honest about what happened, to validate what your child experienced—and also to be a model of reassurance and calm. So you might say something like, “Yes, it was scary when the wind was making so much noise, but we’re safe now, and the windows stayed so strong!”
One thing you want to be mindful of is having too many high-stress conversations about your losses or challenges within earshot of young children. They are very sensitive to the stress of the adults around them, so if they see you upset, that can be unsettling to them.
You can also make things positive by telling the good stories about people helping people, which can be wonderfully reassuring to children. So, again acknowledging your child’s experience, you might say things like, “I was nervous, too, when the fire came close to our house, but wasn’t it so wonderful that our friends came over and helped us move to their house? We’re so lucky to live in a community of people who are so kind and are always here for us.”
That’s a powerful and positive narrative for young children—that even when things are difficult, there are people who will help and support you.
Q: What if my child doesn’t yet “talk” about feelings?
Dr. Yalow: That’s very normal, and there are still many non-verbal signs of stress you can look for. Watching your child play can be especially valuable in detecting these signs because play provides a free and open environment for children to express what they are feeling and thinking.
After a natural disaster, provide your child extra opportunities for free play by giving her things like dress-up clothes, paints, crayons, stuffed animals—anything that allows them to express themselves. Even giving them more time to play with friends or to be outside is powerful, because the interactions, the physicality, and games are all part of how young children can express what’s going on inside.
Play also gives you a chance to have conversations that give you insights into your child’s feelings without directly questioning them about something he may be unable to share or feel uncomfortable discussing. So, for example, while they're coloring, you can ask curious, open-ended questions such as, “Tell me about your picture! What is this? Why did you draw that?” By taking the time to be together, to connect, and to talk with your child in an intentional, engaged way, you’re giving them a lot of support and outlets to express his feelings. You’re saying, “You’re important, and your experiences matter to me.”
Q: We have to move out of our house for a while. How can we provide our child comfort during this tough time of change for our family?
Dr. Yalow: Routines are important for young children. Children like predictability—so the obvious guidance is to reestablish routines and get things back to normal as quickly as possible. But in an overwhelming situation like a hurricane, flood or fire, it may take a long time before the old “normal” can be reestablished.
Still, even little familiar routines can provide real comfort. Although their whole world may not be put together the way it was, you can make sure your child has a copy of her favorite book or blanket. If dinner has always been a special time for your family, ensure that you make dinner special in your new home as well.
Children can also experience a general sense of loss from events like this. Put simply, they just know that things aren’t the same as they were before. Their old routine, how it felt, and what was usual—the predictability—is gone. One thing you can do to help your child regain a sense of security is to help him shape the new “normal.” For example, if you’re moving to a new place, ask, “How should we set this up? Which room do you want? Where should we put your bed and stuffed animals?”And this may seem obvious, but young children thrive on physical comfort. So open up those arms and give your children extra hugs, cuddles, kisses, and lap time. That kind of closeness lets children know that there is someone there to take care of them and love them. It’s powerful. And it may also give you the comfort you need through tough times.