4 Ways Care Providers Can Help Children Process Fears

Braving the Storm
By Dr. Jane Humphries and Kari Rains

The devastating hurricane Harvey has been in the forefront of our minds. It’s almost impossible to miss the news coverage of the horrible loss of life, homes, and community of our neighbors to the south in Texas. As Okie girls, we are familiar with the toll of natural disasters in our communities. Tornados are a staple of life in Oklahoma, we are constantly on alert during the spring months and know where the nearest underground shelter or hidey hole is in case we need to escape Mother Nature’s Wrath.

Driving home with her children after school, Kari had a discussion about the hurricane. Her youngest, Nate (9), has a real fear of weather and tornados. Their family experienced an extremely damaging tornado a few years ago and the footprints of that event were still on Nate’s brain. Nate anxiously asked about the hurricane and floods in Houston. It was evident that he was upset and needed more information and reassurance to process his feelings and fears.

“They labeled his fears and feelings, being scared, anxious, or worried.  Kari reminded him of all the good things that happened after the event”

The first thing they did when they got home was to leave the TV off. In a time of 24-hour news coverage, it’s hard to escape the pictures and stories of devastation for young children. Instead, Nate and Kari sat down and worked on a puzzle together. While hands were busy, they talked about the tornado that Nate remembers. They labeled his fears and feelings, being scared, anxious, or worried.  Kari reminded him of all the good things that happened after the event; community support, planting trees, and taking care of those who were displaced. The conversation then started to talk about the hurricane. While they continued to put the puzzle pieces together, they made a list of things that people who lost their homes to a flood or hurricane damage might need.  They also thought about what kinds of people are coming from all over the world to help the people in Texas-firefighters, policemen, disaster relief, doctors and nurses. Nate hoped that some veterinarians would also volunteer to help the animals that were in need. As they finished the puzzle, Kari reminded Nate that he is safe. That the helpers and workers in Texas are helping to make people safe. This weekend they plan to collect some toys to send to the children and Nate will help shop for them. Kari’s hope is that he will feel some control and a sense of helpfulness that he is not feeling right now.

“This could be a tolerable or toxic stress event”

This event is a time of disruptive change for children.  One, that for some, will hopefully only be a few weeks while their family becomes re-established like Nate experienced.  Other’s lives will be turned upside down.  Either way this could be a tolerable, or toxic stress event.  Tolerable means that the child’s body alert systems are high but with time and a buffer of supportive adults, they can navigate this stress like Kari’s son has had to do.  For those children already living in toxic environments, their lives will spiral.  In the days and weeks to come, those working in early childhood environments must carefully observe and make appropriate referrals to resources within the community. And, most importantly, take the time to be with those children who are openly struggling.

Early childhood educators are crucial to the healing process.  The ideas Kari used with Nate are all applicable to those working in the classroom.

If children in your care are struggling to process feelings and fears during this time, here are a few ideas that might help.

  1. VALIDATE FEARS—Blowing off or not acknowledging fear can be counterproductive to processing feelings and fears.
  2. HELP OUT—Collect clothes or household items to send to disaster relief, make a donation to a charitable organization helping with recovery and rebuilding. Involve the children in your program in the decision and process.
  3. REMIND CHILDREN THEY’RE SAFE—Whether it talking about the ways they are safe at home, school, or other places, or having a safe space specifically for talking about their fears, a consistent reminder that children are safe can be effective in getting through tough times.
  4. TURN OFF THE TV—Watching the news might be a need, but limit the amount of time children spend watching coverage of the disaster and avoid open discussions in front of the children. If they are watching news that is upsetting, point out positive things you see, the people helping, police and fire fighters, note the good that is taking place.

Dr. Jane Humphries has decades of experience in early childhood education, including being a child care director of a program directly impacted by the Oklahoma City bombing. She holds a masters degree in early childhood education and a doctoral degree in occupational and adult education from Oklahoma State University. Humphries is also a consultant specializing in professional development programs and develops products for children requiring sensory stimulation to calm themselves.

Kari Rains holds a masters degree in child development from Oklahoma State University and has over a decade of clinical work in the early intervention program in Oklahoma. She has served as an adjunct professor, published two books, and contributed to numerous research articles in the field of child development.

Learn more about Dr. Humphries and Kari Rain’s book A Fighting Chance: Supporting Young Children During Disruptive Change on RedleafPress.org.

This entry was posted in Classroom Support, Guest Blogger, Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *