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Discussion: Helping Kids After Floods and Disasters Deal with Storms and Loss

posted on June 27, 2008

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Yeager: The events of recent days can weigh on the minds of children. So, we're going to talk about the following things tonight. What are the lingering effects of such disturbing events? What can parents and other adults do to help a child work through the experience? Does our concern for children mask our own anxieties? And is that a matter of which we should be more aware? To help us address these and other questions we have with us Karen Hyatt of the Iowa Department of Human Services and Gladys Alvarez of the Child Guidance Center. Ladies, welcome, thank you for coming in tonight. We just saw in that story right there about the one boy who was talking about how he was playing "flood". Is that a normal response?

Alvarez: That is a normal response. Kids, unlike adults who do talk therapy or talk about how they're feeling to work things out, kids use play as their form of expression to work things out and often when there's a trauma that's how they resolve it, they work it over and might play it over and over and over until they are done with it.

Yeager: So, if I'm a parent of that child I would say that this is normal, this is okay. Should there be a time or a length of time that they should be having these re-enactments or the play of this event?

Hyatt: I think with any reaction after a serious event you do have to take into consideration how long they're acting out or that they're improvising and playing flood. If they're playing flood and it remains harmless and the kids are running in like we saw in the video and then the others are running out I agree that's a very normal reaction. If they start colliding into each other and it becomes a little more destructive then it would be time to take a look at that and maybe have a conversation about what they're feeling, what they're thinking, what they're really acting out.

Alvarez: And usually it's about like if kids continue to be distressed for longer than six to eight weeks after the event then that might indicate that their feeling is more traumatic than they can work out themselves.

Yeager: What if my child hasn't had any reaction of this point?

Alvarez: That too is quite normal, too, because kids, each child will react their own style. So, one shouldn't be concerned if they're not playing "flood" or if they're not overly concerned.

Yeager: So, are they always going to play it or are we going to talk about it or what are other forms that we could look for, Karen?

Hyatt: Well, I don't think that all children will choose to work out how they're feeling through such a game and you really have to look at the different age levels. Are they young children? What is appropriate for their age? What are they able to verbalize? We know for a fact that there are older teenagers who are also experiencing stress. They may not talk about it for a couple of months. They may wait until they're ready or something reminds them of this or another event happens in their life like the start of school when they don't have a school to go back to, when a holiday comes and grandma's house isn't there any longer. And so we may see stress at various points a good six to nine months out.

Alvarez: Some kids will use art and draw things or they'll ask questions but if the adult isn't able to answer the question or is avoidant then that might shut the child down.

Yeager: So, as the adult if I'm not able to help much who should the adult go to for assistance?

Alvarez: There are some natural helpers like the librarian, if that would be somebody that the child really has a good connection with and talks that might be somebody who can kind of talk about the flood and how the community is recovering and point out different things that are happening to help the child know things are getting back to normal or a teacher or a guidance counselor. Or every county has a children's mental health center or a mental health center that is available to families for finding counseling services.

Hyatt: There's also a new project that is starting up called Project Recovery Iowa and it has recently started in the Butler, Blackhawk, Buchanan area, it's starting in Lynn, Benton and Jones. There are actually eight sites that encompass a good 30 plus counties that are going to have outreach workers that are skilled in working with children and adults, going door-to-door, going to groups and they're really becoming more involved this week. And if anybody wanted to access a crisis counselor worker or have them come to their group or to their home they could call the Iowa Concern Hotline number and just request a worker and then they would pass on that information to whomever the project lead is in that area.

Yeager: And so that is in direct response of the floods and the tornadoes that have come through. And so that's something the Department of Human Services is doing?

Hyatt: Yes, it is and it's a grant through FEMA but the state is spearheading that effort and making the arrangements but it's not meant to replace community ongoing support. It is helping people normalize, the stress that they're going on, help them get through the event and then refer back to community resources.

Yeager: So, FEMA is not just giving money out to rebuild drywall or anything like that, they're also spending money -- this is not the first flood Iowa has had. So, is this the first time that we've seen this type of money or funding come through?

Hyatt: FEMA has provided crisis counseling outreach, gosh, for a long, long time. There were 27 projects in 1993. There were projects through FEMA after Katrina. There is a long history of crisis counseling outreach after an event.

Yeager: And there must be some sense that this is working if they continue to do it, not just since Katrina, but you mentioned 1993. So, what is the timetable? You said six to nine months is usually how long they'll be set up in operation to handle this?

Hyatt: The first effort is a 60 day effort and if there is need seen in the first 60 days for continued outreach it can go up for another nine months.

Yeager: Okay. We talked about age just a little bit. But if I've got a four year old at home is this too young of an age to be talking about this? Or would my four year old be able to understand what's going on right now?

Alvarez: Your four year old will understand some things. They would have seen some of the affects on their families and so the most appropriate thing is to answer their questions and not give them any more than they're needing. And they'll keep asking questions if you didn't answer or give them enough information.

Yeager: Okay, let's go to the other end of the spectrum. Say I've got a fourteen year old or a sixteen year old, sometimes they don't want to talk to mom or dad. How do I pick up their indicators that there is something I need to go through with them?

Alvarez: Sometimes they might be more sullen or withdrawn and not doing their normal activities or not wanting to hang out with their friends and things. And so even just saying, I notice that you've been more quiet lately, is there anything you want to talk about? Or why don't you call your best friend and go do something? So, to encourage the to get back into some of their normal routine would be helpful.

Hyatt: Also, research shows that there is a certain stage after disaster with children engaging more risk taking behavior and so that would be something to take a look at as a parent if their child is all of a sudden, an older child racing their bicycles differently than they would have normally, if they're jumping off of buildings, driving their car too fast, you know, taking risks they wouldn't normally take. And I think that's the key is, is the behavior the same as it was prior to the event or are we seeing new behaviors that are different than the child was exhibiting two months ago?

Yeager: With younger children we can kind of read them a little easier and they're a little more simpler. With teenagers it's a little more difficult. So, is there a group that we need to be more concerned or trying to watch one or the other, the younger or the older, or is it a child is a child.

Hyatt: I think everybody. Every age it's going to affect them differently and we've talked about four year olds -- two year olds, they're aware of what's going on, eighteen year olds and I think it's just listening overall to everyone in your family and what's happening.

Alvarez: I would say the more mobile the child the more easily they are to get into those more risk taking behaviors. So, the adolescents who aren't in need of constant supervision from adults usually might get into more of a dangerous or icky situation than the two year old who is going to always be with an adult.

Yeager: Yes, my two year old would always be doing that. Let's talk about some of the media impact. Karen, I asked you this the other night, but I'm kind of curious on your take here. This media it's been 24-7 in some cases, especially in the Cedar Rapids market where they went wall-to-wall coverage and this was on all day long. What type of an impact has that had on not only children but adults or anybody involved with children?

Alvarez: One of the impacts is it can kind of re-traumatize every time you see it. Kids, particularly younger kids, don't understand that's just TV and so when they re-see it again they think it's happening again. And so it's really best particularly for younger kids to limit the media exposure so they're not always seeing the bridge collide into something or the river overflow or their favorite place have the waters rush into it. In 9-11 when the airplane crashed into the building I had several kids come in and tell me that several airplanes hit the building and that's because they were constantly seeing it and they didn't understand it was the same event just being shown several times. So, you really have to be careful about that.

Yeager: It's oh it could happen to us or it is happening to us. I think there was a story that was shared with one of our staff members is there was a little bit of water in the basement and the child thought that their basement was going to be flooded like everybody else's. Is that a normal reaction?

Hyatt: I think it is and we had thunderstorms last night, we're anticipating storms in the next several days. There's flash flood warnings on the news reel on the bottom. There will be kids that are afraid that will be happening to them, that it didn't happen to them the first time, maybe it will happen the second time or they're afraid it will happen again to them. I do think that's a real fear.

Yeager: And is that a form of post-traumatic stress or is that something we would see coming out of this?

Hyatt: I think initially it's a normal reaction. It's how does it affect the individual over time? What are they exhibiting, stress reactors over time? Two weeks isn't going to cause a post-traumatic stress. But what is the behavior over the next course of months? Does it remind them of something else that they haven't dealt with? What would you say to that?

Alvarez: Well, with the post-traumatic stress because that's really a clinical diagnosis that gets made after a traumatic event that's been a very life threatening kind of thing happens. When the child is continually re-enacting that and not able to resolve it or having intrusive thoughts and nightmares but that would be like after that six week period of time when things are kind of back to normal and things are safe again and then the child is still feeling that, then that would be where you would be looking at the PTSD kinds of things. How a child reacts and is able to process and cope with trauma also has to do with how well their parents can help them process and cope with it. So, if their parent isn't available to them for a variety of reasons then that child may not be able to -- may be at more risk of having a traumatic reaction.

Yeager: So, Dan Wardell going out to the reading rooms, was that just as good for the adults as it was for the kids?

Alvarez: Very much so.

Hyatt: Absolutely.

Yeager: Why is that?

Alvarez: Because parents don't usually kind of think about themselves when they're trying to get things back to normal. They go about and they get things all ready for the kids and things but they forget that they too need normalcy and they need to have fun too and they need to relieve some of that anxiety. And so being able to be with their child in a normal, fun situation was very good for the parents.

Yeager: Because the children can certainly pick up on any indications that the parents, if there's tension at home then they're going to be a little tense about this.

Hyatt: And they may be confused on what that tension is even about and I think parents need to be cautious of what it is their child is worrying about and making it very clear this is an adult issue and we'll take care of the insurance and rebuilding and you may hear our stress but this isn't for you to worry about. You have these things and making a clear distinction between what is a child appropriate stress and what is really an adult problem and we'll handle it and everything will be okay and making that very clear.

Alvarez: And at the same time, though, if a child can do something to help it very much empowers children like the little boy who filled the grocery sacks up. That was something that gave him some control over that situation and it's very good that his adults let him do that because that gave him a sense of safety and security. So, and the little boy who was taking things to his friend who had lost a house, anything a child can do to help within their own abilities but not adult stuff, children should be encouraged to help do what they can do.

Yeager: So, continue to let them do that and act those things out.

Hyatt: In an appropriate timeframe. If we have a child in February who still won't go to sleep without a sandbag outside their door then that would be an alarming sign. But in a reasonable timeframe it's absolutely normal.

Yeager: And the way it hit, we're looking at less than three months before we go back to school, that will almost be a time to let the summer go and maybe the schools are really going to pick up a lot. That's the way this is looking. Okay, very good. I appreciate you coming in tonight. This has been a good discussion as well as we continue to discuss things. Karen Hyatt is with the Iowa Department of Human Services and Gladys Alvarez with the Child Guidance Center. Ladies, thank you for coming in tonight. And that will do it for this edition of The Iowa Journal.

Tags: advice disasters families floods HEAT Iowa Iowa-storms-08 kids parenting stress tragedy


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