By Rick Harvey, American Red Cross

Coping with the emotional toll of a traumatic event like Hurricane Harvey is a challenge, especially for parents and children.

That’s why the American Red Cross has trained Disaster Mental Health volunteers who circulate through affected areas, meeting with families and offering help to deal with stress.

Suzanne Trollan
Red Cross Disaster Mental Health volunteer Suzanne Trollan talks to Holiday Lakes, Texas, resident Brenda Tobar about the importance of taking care of herself so she can be strong to support her family of six.

“Are you, as a mom, taking care of yourself?” Suzanne Trollan, a disaster mental health volunteer from Colorado Springs, Colo., asked Brenda Tobar of Holiday Lakes, Texas. This mother of four lost her home and everything in it during recent flooding in southeast Texas.

“If you aren’t taking care of yourself, getting rest, taking your medicines, et cetera, then you can’t take care of your family, your kids,” Trollan gently advised the harried mom. “Your kids need you to be there for them during times like this. Don’t forget that.”

The importance of being in a good shape emotionally to support their children is one of the things mental health volunteers emphasize to parents affected by a traumatic event, like a disaster.

The Red Cross pamphlet “Helping Children Cope with a Disaster” points out that the emotional toll of a disaster may be heightened in children and afterwards some will show temporary changes of behavior.

Factors that can lead to greater vulnerability include:

  • Direct exposure to the disaster. This includes being evacuated, seeing injured or dying people, being injured themselves or feeling that their own lives are being threatened.
  • Personal loss. This includes the death or serious injury of a family member, close friend or family pet.
  • On-going stress from the secondary effects of disaster. This includes temporarily living elsewhere, losing contact with friends and neighbors, losing things that are important to them, parental job loss or the financial costs of reestablishing their previous living conditions.
  • Prior exposure to disaster or other traumatic event.

To help children who show signs of struggling to cope following a disaster, parents are encouraged to understand what is causing the child’s anxiety and fear. Parents can clarify misunderstandings of risk and danger by acknowledging children’s concerns and perceptions.

“Listen to what a child is saying,” the “Helping Children” booklet says. “If a young child asks questions about the event, answer them simply without the elaboration needed for an older child or adult. Children vary in the amount of information they need and can use.

“If a child has a difficulty expressing his or her thoughts and feelings, then allowing them to draw a picture or tell a story of what happened may help.”

Other ways to help kids after disasters include encouraging them to be open and honest and talk about their concerns, monitoring and limiting exposure to the media and re-establishing a daily routine for work, school and play as soon as possible.