This year, hurricane season has generated wall-to-wall stories and pictures of devastation from Texas and Louisiana in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. And now, we see Hurricane Irma tearing through Puerto Rico, the American Virgin Islands, and Florida. Two of the most damaging storms in American history, these natural disasters have caused billions of dollars in damage, uprooted thousands from their homes, disrupted economies at the micro and macro scale — all of which, of course, are secondary to the loss of lives. Harvey alone dumped over 50 inches of rain some areas, a depth taller than many of our students!. So much rain fell that the National Weather Service had to add an entirely new color, purple, to their weather maps to represent the record-shattering amounts of rainfall. Not to be outdone, Irma is literally breaking meteorologists’ instruments for measuring wind speed, having topped 185 mph (these instruments, called anemometers, generally have a maximum measurement of 150-175 mph).
Given the way that these storms saturate both social and traditional media, it is likely that your child will have questions about what is happening and why. Even if your family is not directly affected, children can become quite upset by this type of news — even more so if they learn that other major storms are predicted to hit the United States during the rest of 2017. Communicating with your child in a positive and constructive way about these stories is important, because your adult perspective can help them contextualize what might otherwise be catastrophized in their minds into something that could happen to their family at any moment, without warning.
First, please don’t assume that your child knows nothing about these events. Even if your child doesn’t watch or listen to the news, chances are good that he or she knows and hears about major events (and even some minor ones) via commercials, social media, and word of mouth. Kids often know more than we give them credit for, and providing them information in a safe, controlled environment allows them to process the information and understand it in an appropriate context.
CONNECTING WITH YOUR CHILD
Overheard remarks and rumors at school (or at home!) can lead to misperceptions about crises like Harvey and Irma that can be very frightening for children. Listen for comments or questions about what’s going on, and use those comments as a launch point to begin the conversation. Even if your child doesn’t bring up the topic, you may still want to create an opportunity to give them accurate, age-appropriate information. Find a time when you can talk interrupted for a few minutes without distractions. Something as simple as, “Do you know what’s going on with…?” is a perfect way to start.
- Consume the news together. Though the story definitely is not pleasant, getting more information can help alleviate anxiety and provide context. Children are very visual and interactive, so video news would be preferable to newspaper coverage, but reading the paper together is also fine, especially if that choice reflects your family dynamic. Ideally, you view something as concrete as possible, such as CNN, The Weather Channel, or local news coverage.
- Find answers together. It is likely that watching and reading about the storm will bring up some major questions. Learning answers for themselves is far more helpful and impactful for children than having adults simply tell them. You can Google the answers together, or go to the library. The Weather Channel and/or Discovery Channel are good options, as well.
- Keep following the story (to a point). This may seem counterintuitive, but staying informed about the storms and their aftermath can actually demonstrate something very important to your child, since when bad things happen, it can seem like things will never get better. Sticking with the news through — and beyond! — those dark moments allows your child to realize that things do start to improve. That can help them understand that the distress and destruction have an end, and that recovery does have a beginning.
- Keep politics out of it. Your goal in these conversations is to use information to lower your child’s anxiety and provide context. In these politically intense times, it can be easy to let the actions surrounding an event be viewed through a partisan or rancorous lens. If you as a parent/caregiver need to process the political aspects of disaster relief and response, it’s best for you to take a moment to do so before addressing these topics with your child.
- Learn how you can help! Turning the anxious/depressed energy that naturally emerges after a major disaster into helpful actions is one of the best ways to move through a tragedy. As you consume the news, keep an eye out for how you can help and what specific assistance the afflicted people need. Additionally, gifted children can be distressed not only by the actual storm, but by their perception that they cannot do anything about it. Helping them find concrete ways to contribute in the wake of the storms relieves panic and helps them feel a sense of agency and capability.
MANAGING EMOTIONAL REACTIONS
These storms are likely to trigger the natural empathy, sense of justice, and emotional intensity common in gifted children. Here are a few guidelines:
- Listen and validate the feelings. A very common mistake in speaking with gifted children is to deny or minimize the big, intense feelings they can have. If a child feels distressed about any of the the hurricane’s effects — from the plight of other children to the fate of pets and livestock — your first job is to listen and to tell the child that being worried or upset about those things is okay. (After all, these feelings are a reflection of a kind and compassionate heart.)
- Name the feelings. Asking the child to name his or her feeling, which puts their advanced vocabulary to work for you in helping alleviate the problem. “Naming a feeling” helps the brain start to calm us down.
- No feelings are bad! Try to model with your children that feelings aren’t “good” or “bad”; when they hear that their feelings are “bad,” children may feel that they cannot or should not share them with you. Saying instead that feelings are “comfortable” or “uncomfortable” avoids this confusion and lets children feel like it’s okay to have — and to share — their emotions.
- Put the feelings in context. Asking children how big their feelings are (small, medium, big, or HUGE!) helps them get a handle on the emotion. You can also ask the child to rate the feeling on a scale of 1-10, or to give the feeling color, texture, shape, and sound. The more your work with your child to ground the feelings in context, the easier those feelings are to manage.
- Redirect the uncomfortable feelings into something constructive. Big feelings can seem all-encompassing and overwhelming, making children feel stuck or trapped. As parents, teachers, and caregivers, we are uniquely able to help our children redirect their feelings. To that end, we want to facilitate our students being able to help, if possible. Sometimes, just a handwritten note to those are on the front lines of these disasters — including police and fire departments, schools, and churches — to offer your good wishes, is a much appreciated gesture.
Dr. Matt Fugate, a professor at University of Houston – Downtown, and a member of the Grayson Research Advisory Board, is giving back to his local community despite being in the middle of his own recovery from Harvey. “One of the projects that I have taken on is to pair up sister schools — those affected by the storms here in Houston — with others elsewhere that might want to ‘adopt’ them.” Through Dr. Fugate’s effort, Grayson has adopted The Journey School of Houston. Like us, they are a small independent school for gifted learners, and their school has been devastated by the storm and subsequent floods. To show their support, our students are writing notes and recording video messages to their counterparts at The Journey School of Houston and ways to raise money for supplies they may need when they can re-open.