By Kirsten Kuzirian
In the last week, our California communities have been thrown into survival mode as people have raced to protect the family members, animals, and structures they cherish. As families stay in shelters, or monitor media updates with bags packed, parents are wondering how the disaster will impact their children. As a child psychologist, I have developed these tips to help families cope during a crisis or its aftermath.
1. Be gentle with yourself. You either just made or are in the process of making some of the hardest decisions you will likely face about your family's safety and well-being. You are under an immense amount of pressure, and may be coping with little sleep and little time to emotionally process what is happening or has happened. When you hear a critical voice, acknowledge it, and then put it in its place. The adults in your community (that's you!) are doing an amazing job problem-solving and working together in a terrifying situation. Practice using a kind inner voice. It will make it easier to be kind to others.
2. Accept all feelings. Accept your and your child's feelings. Accept that "fixing" anyone's feelings is not part of your parental job description. By accepting your own feelings about the crisis, you are better able to choose how you express them. You can model for your children that it is absolutely appropriate to have feelings about what is going on around them: "I'm sad that we lost our house. But I know we are safe, and we will find a new home."
Be open and curious about your child's experience. As heartbreaking as it feels to hear that your child may be scared or sad, know that what he or she is experiencing is normal. Instead of giving in to the urge to try to fix or solve your child's feelings, validate them instead: "You're worried right now." Sitting with these feelings is enough, but you can also help your child explore what these emotions feel like in her or his body. Offer to practice some deep breathing or body stretches.
3. Help them see the light. Viewing the world with gratitude helps us to feel hopeful and positive. Giving thanks also helps us to be resilient in the face of trauma or crisis. Say what feels authentic for you. You could verbalize your appreciation for the concern and support of friends and family, or express thanks for the help of community volunteers, public servants, and neighbors. These messages remind your child that in the midst of painful transitions, they can count on others to care about them.
4. Use focused energy. You may be trying to collect information about your child's school, your home, his or her best friend, the cat and the dog, so that you can reassure the family with updates. This can be exhausting and maybe even impossible if you are in an area still experiencing power outages and lost cell service. Harness your energy by checking in with your child about what they are wondering about. Every person is different and the things your child is actually thinking about may surprise you. Even if you don't have the answers they want, your curiosity reminds them that their feelings are important and that they are deeply connected to you, even at this time.
5. Structure some simple joys. Your family's day-to-day routine has been disrupted. In some areas, the places that make up those routines have been devastated. Pick one thing each day that you can use as your child's north star. If you are traveling to stay with grandparents, ask them to cook a favorite meal so your child has something to look forward to. You can do this with anything--a trip to the animal shelter to check on a pet, an outing to a movie to stay out of the smoke and haze. Pick even the smallest thing and refer to it throughout the day so your child has some structure to orient around.
6. Help them be the light. After we have been in survival mode, our adrenaline is pumping; we can be full of energy that feels uncomfortable and that we aren't sure what to do with. If you are safe but are doing a lot of waiting around or are stuck indoors with your child, bringing attention to others can be a relief. Practicing small acts of kindness keeps your child's heart and mind busy and empowered. Share some extra snacks you have in the car with another family waiting at a community meeting point. If you are at home, gather supplies for local shelters, send an e-mail filled with love to a friend or family member, or meditate or pray for those still in harm's way.
Kirsten Kuzirian, PsyD, is a licensed clinical psychologist and the owner of Napa Child Wellness in Napa and Folsom Child Wellness in Folsom. She can be reached at www.drkuzirian.com or by calling 707-418-8463.