Psychologist Amy Cavanaugh of Acadiana Medical Psychological Services weighs in on how to handle the unique questions and issues that arise after events like the recent flood, especially with children.
“Children are worried it’s going to flood again, and the important thing to explain to them is that most families will recover over time and how much support people in our community have,” she says.
It’s that sort of community and family support that both Cordova and her friend, Monica Hornsby, whose home also flooded, point toward when explaining to their children what happened. The Cordovas have a 5-year-old and 2-yearold while the Hornsby’s have a 4-year-old and a 2-year-old.
“We talked about all the helpers, all the people who are helping us and everyone else and really emphasize the positive things that are happening,” Cordova says. “When we left the house on Friday we were acting like it was such a fun adventure and we were going to have a sleepover and watch movies!” But, in the following days, Cordova knew her daughter felt the stress of what had happened, and the mother who rarely cries did cry in front of her children as the waters were rising.
“The unknown of how much water we would get and how long we would be gone was very upsetting,” she says.
Cordova is not alone. Just as parents are trying to parent through the storm they are also working out what’s happened internally from their perspective. It’s a balancing act Hornsby says is clear, having been through Katrina with no children and now this flood with two kids.
“The hardest part of parenting for us has been; it’s so hard to know when grace or routine structure is needed. Their world has been turned upside down, most things familiar are gone or missing for now,” Hornsby says. “How do I recreate ‘normal’ for them? It’s been a hard thing to re-establish guidelines, consequences and routine in a new environment. I want them to have overall positive memories of this experience and yet at the same time allow them to feel and express what they are dealing with. I do not want to overcompensate for what has happened, but I also want them to feel safe in showing their frustrations and confusions. When I dealt with this before I had children, I could just focus on getting through it. However, now I have to focus on helping them navigate through with a positive conclusion. It means I have been less involved in the recovery of our home, but our boys are taking first priority.”
Cavanaugh says for families facing upheaval after the flood it’s important to give extra comfort and try to replace lost or damaged toys, to get children back in a routine and give them tasks they can do to help others, which helps them cope.
“Not just routine, but structure and discipline. They can be upset, but they need limits and can’t act out, and those limits make them feel safe. Give them a break and let them express their feelings, yet the expectations are still there for behavior,” Cavanaugh says.
Cavanaugh says it’s OK for children to see their parents upset. But it’s crucial that children also see their parents model self-care.
“It’s OK for your children to see you cry and then let them see you take care of yourself and give yourself a break. Let them see you hug your husband. Put off major decisions, and for children limit media exposure,” Cavanaugh continues. “Limit adult conversations in front of them. They get worried about what they don’t understand.”
During a recent stop by their home that was flooded and underwent demolition, Hornsby unintentionally hit the garage door button exposing the home to their 4-year-old son:
floors ripped out, sheetrock gone, exposed studs and their belongings nowhere to be seen. “He saw all the walls busted out. He thought it was kind of cool. At that point we took him out and went in and explained all the things that happened and how we are going to put it back,” Hornsby says.
Cavanaugh says one of the keys to parenting and coping is to acknowledge it’s perfectly acceptable to have more than one feeling and to be honest with children.
“You can feel grateful and sad. You can feel thankful and angry. And you can feel sad and relieved it wasn’t worse,” she says.
For Cordova, that has meant being both sad and hopeful in front of her children.
“I think it’s good for her to see me cry and then say, ‘It’s OK to be sad when something bad or scary happens, but we have to trust that God will help us make it better,’” Cordova says.
“Talking about all the people that have helped us ... I honestly think that’s the only way I have been able to keep going and to stay focused on all that God has done and is doing for us,” Hornsby says.
Cavanaugh says if children continue to experience a lot of fear and worry, lack concentration in school and become withdrawn after six weeks, it’s time to seek professional help. She says one of the unique aspects of the flood is that while each family experienced something unique, there is a sense of understanding community-wide about what happened. People displaced are not alone.
“People in our area have so much support. Kids are looking to adults to stay calm and to answer honestly,” the psychologist says. “The more kids can understand the better they can cope. Kids need to be involved in the process if they are able to help.”