Kids Coping With Tornado Aftermath

Since the tornadoes hit on April 16, we've heard a lot of facts and figures: 24 lives lost, 130 serious injuries, thousands of homes damaged and destroyed. One thing you can't put in black and white is how those who lived through a tornado are coping, especially the kids.

The Bowser Family in Colerain lost their home and their family business during the storm. Timothy and Stephanie Bowser say their six-year-old son, Tristan, has been a real trooper dealing with all the changes in his life. They also say his school, Colerain Elementary, has been instrumental in helping provide stability in his life.

"It's been good for him," said Stephanie. "It's allowed him to have something going on other than this," as she referenced the empty land around her that their house used to be.

Colerain Elementary Principal Clara Lee says the first thing she did when the students returned to school the Tuesday after the tornadoes was gather all the children together for an assembly to explain that the school is there for them. Lee says several of the students wrote essays on who they felt or drew pictures of the storm.

ECU Psychology Professor Dr. Jeannie Golden says that kind of expression is important for kids, and parents should provide opportunities for children to talk about what they're feeling.

"I think the parents really want to be available for the children, want to talk to them about the tornado, but talk in terms that are not frightening," Golden said. Take the cue from the child. Let the child talk about what their concerns are."

Golden says parents should watch for changes in behavior as a warning sign that the child is having trouble coping with a dramatic event or tragedy. Some changes for young children may include clingy behavior, trouble sleeping, wetting the bed, or having nightmares. For adolescents, they may become more withdrawn, struggle with their grades, or act out with dangerous behaviors that include drugs or alcohol.

Golden emphasizes that reactions like to these to traumatic situations are normal, but it's important to keep expectations the same. For example, Golden says, "it's okay to feel angry; it's not ok to hit."

If a behavior persists for six weeks or starts to interrupt normal family life, Golden says parents may want to seek professional help for their child to help them cope.

On the flip side, Golden encourages parents not to look too hard for problems. Some are more resilient than others and may not be affected deeply or in a troubling way following a tragedy like a deadly tornado outbreak.

Ashley Bouknight Wingard is a pediatric psychology doctoral student, who is also the practicum student assigned to Greene Central High School in Snow Hill. She's been working with students there all semester and has a real insight into how they're dealing with the disaster. Snow Hill suffered a lot of damage on April 16. Greene County Middle School was destroyed. Bouknight Wingard was there when the students returned after two weeks out of school.

"They were really excited to get back to that routine," Bouknight Wingard said. She says even though a month has passed since the storm, parents should still be tuned into their children.

"As the novelty of everything wears off, and as they settle into whatever their new routines may be, still keep an eye out," Bouknight Wingard said. Just be sure that since all of the chaos has settled is when you may actually start to see some of those behaviors come out."

Adolescents can provide a different set of challenges after a tragedy. They can be unwilling to open up to parents about anything. Bouknight Wingard has a strategy for that: ask them what their friends are saying about what happened. "Really relate it to their peers, because that's an important group for children that age."

Dr. Golden offered an acronym "SAFETY" for parents to use to help them respond to their children after a storm. This acronym was developed by the National Child Traumatic Stress Network.

The "s" stands for "safety." Focus on safety first. That includes keeping your child close to you, telling her you will take care of things that are scary, shielding your child from frightening images and conversations, and keeping with familiar things and routins.

The "a" stands for "allow expression of feelings." Acting out can be a way of asking for help. Help your child name how she is feeling, and tell her it's okay to feel that.

The "f" stands for "follow your child's lead." Listen to your child and watch his behavior to determine what he needs most.

The "e" stands for "enable your child to tell the story of what happened during and after the tornado." Children use play to tell their story. Encourage that.

The "t" stands for "ties." Reconnect with supportive people, community, culture and rituals. Simple things like a bedtime story they know well can remind your child of your way of life and offer hope.

The "y" stands for "your child needs you." Sometimes just being with your child can help, even if you can't fix things. If you need to leave your child, explain when you will be back.

For more information from the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, click the link below.


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