Earthquakes, fires, floods, tornadoes and even unemployment can cause the loss of your home and disruption to your normal way of life. Those are all frightening, but none of those compares to the stress felt today as we are confined to our homes due to an illness that seems both unstoppable and deadly.
This is confusing to adults but much more traumatic for young children and even teens, who do not yet understand challenges, and will feel lost – as though their world will never again be “normal”. We often cannot control a crisis in our life, but we can plan to deal with one.
Following a disaster, we are so concerned with the physical well-being of family members that we often overlook their emotional and spiritual health. A crisis does not need to be a time we look back on with loathing, but can rather be remembered as a time for personal growth and increased family unity.
Fear is normal following any disaster. After 9/11, many feared flying, others feared big cities, still others feared those of other faiths or nationalities. For children, there are other fears. Parents need to understand that these fears are also normal. Children fear being abandoned, a re-occurrence of the disaster, injury and death.
We encourage children to develop their imaginations. We encourage them to set goals and to dream of what their future will be. Following a disaster these good childlike qualities will cause them to fantasize future events which are far worse than the event they have just experienced. Parents must understand this is normal and they must plan for this. Very young children cannot distinguish between reality and their imaginations. Anything they imagine becomes possible.
Children will be afraid to be left alone. They will fear being separated from family. They will be afraid to visit the doctor if they have experienced death during the crisis. Even children who are normally very independent will experience these unfamiliar characteristics. It is difficult when dealing working from home and home schooling your children when they are constantly at your side. There will be a temptation to leave them parked in front of the television or devices. This is terrible for their mental health as they will not feel safe without support and real answers.
A child’s fear is a real fear and adults must understand that their child would like nothing more than to be rid of the fear.
Children may revert to behaviors they have outgrown. They may become aggressive or very quiet and withdrawn. All of this is normal. Punishing, mocking or criticizing their fears will only lengthen the time it takes to heal. Do not allow older children to behave in a negative way toward their younger siblings. Help them to understand what younger children are feeling.
Adults need to be aware of their own reactions. Remember, children learn as much from watching your actions as they do from your reassuring words. If adults are expressing fear and anxiety, the children will magnify these fears in their own minds. If your child hears there are orders to stay at home and you do not, it will further confuse them and cause stress. The same is true of criticizing those in authority.
What can a parent do to help their child?
1. Keep the family together. This provides reassurance that they will be protected and cared for. During this crisis we are asked to do just that, stay together, so use it as an opportunity to strengthen your family ties.
2. Communicate your fears. Express what you are feeling to your children. Share a little of your own fears and assure them you know your family will work together and survive and thrive. Help them to understand that fear is normal. Make statements such as: “I know you are afraid”, or “I know it is scary right now”. Your child may act out their fears as they play. Watch for this and learn from these episodes and address them.
3. Give thanks. Say things such as: “We are all together and we are all safe, isn’t that great?” Help them to verbalize what there is to be thankful for. Communicating well and often is the greatest gift you can provide during this time of readjustment.
4. Include your child in daily, planned activities. Use care not to expose them to dangerous situations but let them be part of the solution as your family works toward normalcy. They can sweep, rake, take care of siblings, learn to cook, even play with the dog. The tasks can be small, but the children should remain involved in the process. They should be made to feel that the family is moving forward because they are helping.
5. Reestablish some normal activities such as family home evening, family prayer, scripture study and Sabbath worship.
6. Continue bedtime routines such as reading a favorite book or two. Children may fear being away from parents at bedtime. They may fear the dark. It may be necessary to allow children to sleep in the same room with parents or older siblings as they learn to deal with their new reality.
7. Eat together. Adults may be consumed with responsibilities but make time. Always take a break from your tasks to eat together.
8. Give your children the gift of agency. Allow them to begin making decisions. “Should we have spaghetti or tacos for dinner?” “What can we do to help someone else?”
9. Play. Take time every day to toss around the football, play a board game, take a bike ride or just have fun together and put all the hassles on hold for an hour or two.
10. Do not spend time watching the news. Catch up when the children are involved somewhere else or in bed.
11. Don’t discount the power of food. Preparing favorite meals can be a comfort. Comfort food helps their belief that all will be well.
12. If your children are in touch with friends be sure you understand what the friends are saying. They may have parents who are not calm and thus their children are creating problems that do not exist.
Disasters will happen. Children will be afraid, sometimes very afraid. Prepare to comfort and reassure them. Your family will survive and thrive as you communicate and remain optimistic.
Be sure to check out Carolyn’s posts on Facebook and her Totally Ready website for tips and help with all your pandemic and self-reliance questions. Don’t forget to share your success stories, and activities keeping your family engaged, with Carolyn there or here.