“Dr. Linda, since the hurricane my three-year-old has started biting his baby sister. Is this normal? How can I protect the baby? What should I do?”
Children of different ages tend to have different responses to stress. To help your child cope well with a disaster, it is important to do what you can to lower the amount of stress your child feels:
- Take care of yourself and manage your own emotions in healthy ways. Children pick up on your stress and may react to it in addition to reacting to whatever they themselves are feeling. When you use healthy coping skills you are teaching your children by example productive ways to cope with challenges.(See next weeks blog).
- Let your children know what is happening.
- Teach your children healthy ways to manage strong emotions and stress.
Talking to your children:
To help your child cope during and after a disaster situation here is what they need to know:
- What is happening. (In age-appropriate language and detail.)
- What you are doing to protect them.
- What others are doing to protect them.
- How they can help protect themselves, your family and their friends.
Whenever you are going to talk to your child take the time to calm yourself first.
Take three deep breaths in through your nose and out through your nose( or mouth). This is a quick, easy way to activate your relaxation response and calm down.
The calmer and more present you are, the better you will be able to reassure them and the safer they will feel.
Talking to your very young child:
Generally, children under the age of 2 don’t have the verbal skills to understand the details of what is happening. They do, however, notice when you are worried and stressed. In a disaster situation, your child may pick up on the family’s stress and may start showing stress behaviors in the form of :
- Acting out the same emotions you are having.
- Decreased appetite.
- Withdrawal from interacting with others and from playing with their toys.
If you notice your baby showing stress type responses here are a few ways to support them:
- Stay as calm as you can when you are around them.
- Focus your full attention on your child when you are with them to let them know how important they are.
- Give your child as much physical cuddling and holding as you can.
- Reassure your baby often that you will take good care of them. Tell them often how much you love them.
Talking to your 3-5 year old:
3-5-year-olds have an age-appropriate understanding of what is going on.
To decrease your preschooler’s fears and stress as you talk to them:
- Take the time to calm yourself first.
- Get down to the level where you make eye contact with them.
- Tell them what is happening and how it will affect them. Use words that they will understand and be brief. Be very literal in your explanations: if your electricity has gone out explain exactly what you think happened: “The wind blew down an electric pole. That is why the lights don’t work. We have some candles/ battery lights here so we will be able to see for now. Soon the electric company will have lots of people working to fix the problem and get us our electricity back.”
- Reassure them you will do everything you can to keep them safe.
- Tell them about all the people they can’t see and who are working to keep all of you safe: The firefighters, police, paramedics, national guard, etc.
As a result of the stress of a disaster 3-5-year-olds and may show some of the following behaviors:
- Temper tantrums.
- Separation anxiety and clinginess.
- Aggressive behavior.
- Thumb sucking.
- New fears like fear of strangers, darkness or monsters.
- Changes in their eating and/or sleeping habits.
- They may act out the events that happened or tell exaggerated stories about what happened.
- They may develop symptoms like tummy aches, backaches, headaches that have no medical explanation.
After the disaster has passed, order has been restored, and your child feels safer, these behaviors should go away with proper support.
To help your child cope in this stressful time:
- Get back to your normal routines( or as close as possible) as soon as you can.
- Try to feed your child a healthy diet at regular intervals to keep their blood sugar stable.
- Teach your child stress relief skills like:
- Deep breathing. Have them practice deep breathing 3 times a day so when you notice they are getting wound up and ready to have a meltdown you can coach them to breathe deeply instead.
- Exercise. Jumping rope, dancing, jumping jacks are all thing that can be done in a small space. These things are fun to do, distract your child and release chemicals that make your child feel better.
- Healthy ways to express their feelings:
- Through words( teach them feeling words like scared, frustrated, worried, bored, angry, sad, happy, excited) they can then use these words to talk to you or sing about how they feel.
- Through drawing them.
- Through movements like stomping, pretending to be an angry elephant or even by dancing.
Back to the question:”Dr. Linda, since the hurricane, my three-year-old has started biting his baby sister. Is this normal? How can I protect the baby? What should I do?”
If your child has started having some harmful behaviors as a result of stress you may want to consider ways to minimize the harmful behaviors they are exhibiting. At the same time, you want to be sure to reinforce all the positive behaviors he/she has.
Let’s say your child has started biting his baby sister, like the child in the question. You know biting is dangerous and can lead to serious infections but you don’t want to stress your child more.
Here are a few strategies to deal with biting:
- Use the above strategies (or whichever ones you find are best) to help your child to cope with the stress.
- Spend ‘special time’ with your child every day. This is a 3-10 minute period where you spend dedicated time with your child, completely focused on them and where you do what they want (within reason). This lets your child know that you love them and that they are important to you. It also gives them some control in a situation where they feel they have no control.
- Consider using “time out” as a gentle and way to help discourage your child from the behavior if it continues despite the above strategies.
How to start using time out:
- Establish limits about what behavior you will and will not accept.
- Tell your child what you have decided. Make sure to tell them clearly what the consequence will be for doing the behavior. In the above example, it would be: “From now on, if you bite your sister, I am putting you in time out.”
- Every time your child bites you need to enforce the consequence, in this example you need to put your child in time out.
- After the time out, ask your child about how they are feeling, reassure them that you love them and will do everything in your power to keep them safe.
- At other, calmer, moments during the day, you can teach your child teach things they can do to help them manage their emotions in a healthier way. Teaching them these skills when they are calm allows you to be able to coach them through the more challenging times (see above).
How to talk with 6-19-year-old to help your child cope:
- Older kids will often know more than you think they do.
- Before you start talking ask them what they already know to make sure it is accurate.
- Have your child ask their questions. Answer as honestly as you can without adding to their fear.
- To make sure they have really understood your answer, ask them to repeat back to you what they heard you say. If they did not hear you accurately, repeat the information in a different way so they do understand you correctly.(This is called active communication)
- Ask your child to tell you how they are feeling. As they answer listen with your full attention and without judgment to what they are saying.
After a disaster older children may develop some behavioral and emotional issues:
- They may have problems with eating and/or sleeping.
- They may start acting younger than their age and asking for help doing things they know how to do like getting dressed, eating, taking a bath.
- They may withdraw from their friends, avoid school or develop problems in school.
- They may develop physical symptoms like headaches, stomachaches etc. that have no medical explanation.
- Emotional issues older children may struggle with are:
- Guilt. Some children may feel guilty they were not able to help.
- Aggressive behavior at home or at school.
- Drug or alcohol use. Older children may turn to these substances thinking they will help them cope with the strong negative emotions they have after the disaster.
Helping your school-aged child deal with the after-effects of a disaster:
- Return to your routines as soon as possible.
- Avoid letting your child watch media coverage of what is going on. If they want to watch try to always be present. Often the media exaggerates things and makes them even scarier, but more importantly, you want to be there to answer your children’s questions and help them process the information. The graphic sights and sounds the media so often shares can also be very frightening to your child.
- Communicating with your school-aged child is key:
- Whenever you are going to have a talk with your child make sure that you are in the best place you can be, in order to be supportive. If you are stressed and worried it will be hard for you to help them calm down.
- Listen quietly and without judgment.
- Listen carefully to what your child is saying. Be fully present with them as they talk to you.
- Accept how your child feels and try not to judge their feelings or tell them that what they feel is wrong. Dismissing how a child feels as wrong shuts down communication between you so your child may not come to you for help anymore.
- Ask your child what they are going to do to deal with the emotion. If they don’t have any ideas help them brainstorm healthy ways to manage a negative emotion. Thinking of ways they can control the emotion gives them a feeling of empowerment because too often we think that our emotions control us rather than the other way around. If your child is stuck and can’t come up with ideas, ask them (especially the teenagers) if they would like you to share some ideas.
- Help your child find something positive in what happened. This is hard to do, but by focusing on things that went right you help them activate the relaxation centers in their brain which makes them feel better. Try to direct their attention to the fact that you are all safe and healthy, or that many people got together to help and support your safety.
- Allow your child to cry. Crying is a good way to relieve stress and to deal with strong emotions.
- Encourage your child to express themselves through drawing, writing, singing and even dancing for kids who learn and express through their bodies.
- Don’t let the disaster become the only topic of discussion. Your child needs to talk about it and process what happened, but, if you notice that is all your child is talking about, guide them to redirect their attention to other things like things they love to do.
- Make sure your child spends time doing things that they love to do.
- Encourage your child to spend time with friends.
- Come up with ways your children can help others. Helping others is a great way to relieve stress and give your child some power in a situation where they may feel powerless. Maybe they can write and send thank you notes to people who helped you. Brainstorm with them ways you can help others.
As always, I would love to hear your stories and the unique ways you helped your child cope with a disaster. Please post them in the comments below to help other moms.
To your holistic health,
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