Helping our children in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey

Dear South/Southeast Texas,

We have been through a disaster these last days. Most of us find ourselves in one of two categories:

  1. Flooded. Anxiety built for us as we anticipated the possibility of all of our worldly possessions being destroyed. We prepared. We rushed to buy water, we sandbagged our homes, we made sure we had fuel for our vehicles and generators. We waited. And then we saw it. That first trickle of water under the door, through the weepholes, or seeping up through the flooring. We frantically moved things as high as we could and the water kept coming. We exhausted “plan A” and “plan B” and found ourselves working “plan C”. We were rescued by neighbors on jet skis, in kayaks, or in flat bottom boats. We called for help. We paced until first responders finally arrived in high-water vehicles, boats, and helicopters. We stuffed the cat in a duffle bag, held the kids close, and we were off to find higher ground. Since then, the contents of our homes have been ripped out and thrown on the front lawn, in a dumpster, or on a street. We’re eating whatever food someone brings us or serves us. We live in shelters, RV’s, apartments, or on the second floor of a bleach doused home. We are worried about a lot. Money. Insurance. We feel guilt. Why didn’t I pay for flood insurance? Why didn’t I evacuate? We are tired. We are sad. We are stressed. And, so are our children.
  2. Helping. You didn’t flood. However, since people began to flood we have been serving. We’ve rescued people, whole families, in boats, kayaks, and jet skis. We have served in shelters providing dry clothes, clean water, a hot meal, medical care, and a safe place to sleep. We’ve heard the story of every person who flooded. We have served on work crews. We are the volunteers who went into the flooded homes of our family, friends, and neighbors. We loaded up their worldly possessions and dumped them in a trash pile. We ripped out their sheetrock and threw it on the front lawn. We tore our their cabinets, their bathrooms, and their door frames. We have used tools we have never used before. We have worn masks, sprayed bleach, called it a wrap, and then went into the house next-door to do the same thing. We do it because we love people. We do it because we believe it’s what we should do. And sometimes, if we are honest, we do it because we feel guilty that we didn’t flood. We are tired. We are sad. We are stressed. And, so are our children.

Our children are like sponges absorbing all of this. I have visited dozens of homes and dozens of families, and met with hundreds of people now,  and I am noticing something. Our children are suffering post traumatic stress. The good news is, as parents, we can help with that.

What does post traumatic stress look like in children?

  • Sleep disturbances
  • Depression
  • Jittery, fidgety, on guard
  • Easily startled
  • Loss of interest in things once enjoyed
  • Detachment – lack of responsiveness; emotionally numb
  • Problems in school that weren’t evident before
  • Regressive behaviors – acting younger than they really are (sucking thumb again, etc.)
  • Physical symptoms – headaches, stomach aches, etc.

*You may notice some of this in your own life. For the record, I have some of this going on. It’s pretty normal given what we’ve been through.

What should I do if I notice this kind of stress in my child in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey?

  • Pay attention to your children. It would be very easy to be so busy just dealing with the effects of the disaster that you neglect your children. I will be the first to say, I have been there over the last 10 days. Let’s turn our eyes toward them now. Take note of their pattern of behavior. Listen to their words. What is repetitive? What are they asking for? Are they too quiet? Are they feeling sick a lot? Do they just want to sleep or are they so fidgety that they are driving you crazy.
  • Offer your children compassion. They need compassion right now. Listen to them. Hold them. Be with them.
  • Create Rhythm and normalcy. All of us are out of our normal, comfortable, life-rhythms. Nothing is– as it was. Therefore, we have to create rhythm. Re-connect with the old rhythms that you can and use the opportunity to create the life rhythms you always desired. Make the family table a big deal. Have dinner together, even if you have to set up a borrowed card table in one of the upstairs bedrooms. Make every evening meal a time to connect, listen, laugh, and pray. Who cares if you are eating spam from a distribution center?  The point is to create a daily connection point. Wake the family up at a descent hour and go to bed at a descent hour. Pray at bed time together. Read books, tell stories, go on bike rides (if the bike still works), look for ways to laugh. Go to church on Sunday and worship with friends and family. Obviously, school starting will help with rhythm but don’t wait. Go ahead and create tangible life rhythms that your children can count on.
  • Pray with them. Laugh with them. Weep with them. Let them be angry and sit with them in that. Don’t fight to suppress but help them express. Right now is a really great time to let them use a baseball bat to beat the couch that is sitting in your front yard. When will they every get to do that again?
  • Create healthy boundaries. This is probably an entire post on it’s own. However, if there are people that negatively impact your children emotionally in the wake of this disaster, it’s ok to set up a temporary boundary so that they don’t have to interact. If your child can’t handle going with you to serve in the distribution center, don’t make them. If they are going crazy in your house that is half destroyed, find ways to get out for chunks of time during day. You get the idea.
  • Finally, get help. In some cases you may need help navigating post traumatic stress in your life or the lives of your children. We want to help. Start by visiting our website at Bay Area Church. You will find our biblical counseling ministry called “Living Water”, is ready to help you on an individual or family basis. Reach out. You will be glad you did in the long run.

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