After the Disaster: 7 Tips to Help Girls Heal in the Weeks and Months after a Natural Disaster
Recovery from the effects of a natural disaster can involve rebuilding houses, schools, and whole communities. But it’s important for parents to realize that beyond the physical structures that need repair, a child’s sense of security and calm will likely need to be rebuilt, too. Paying attention to this sometimes “invisible” damage is just as vital to tend to as more obvious projects in the aftermath of a storm, fire, earthquake, or other disaster.
It’s absolutely normal for your daughter to feel anxious after an unpredictable event where she was either in direct danger or even simply felt threatened. It’s also absolutely normal for her to feel sad or even angry about the losses she may have experienced either during the disaster or immediately following it. When one thinks of losses in the scope of a catastrophe, they’re often limited to the big things like the destruction of a home or even the tragic death of a loved one, but it’s vital to note that other, seemingly smaller kinds of losses—a favorite book that got ruined, a teddy who got lost, or friends who she’s been separated from if she or her pals had to relocate—can also have a big effect on your girl and should be addressed with empathy and compassion.
“You may be doing fine and even think your girl is, too,” says Girl Scouts’ developmental psychologist, Dr. Andrea Bastiani Archibald, “but because kids lack some of the coping tools adults have gained over the years, it may take children weeks or even months to regain a feeling of normalcy. If she sees you moving on as though everything is fine, and the topic isn’t brought up again, your daughter may feel embarrassed if she’s still struggling and feel like she should act as though everything is fine in her world, too. These feelings, if buried or ignored, can fester and lead to prolonged sleep disturbances, deeper feelings of anxiety or depression, and even episodes of acting out.”
So what can you do to guide her through this time of transition and help her regain solid footing? Follow these seven tips from Dr. Bastiani Archibald.
1. Ask how she’s doing. It might seem like an obvious thing to do, but in the sometimes chaotic aftermath of a harrowing event, this simple question might be overlooked. Acknowledge that she’s been through a lot and ask how she’s been feeling recently about the disaster. Is she feeling any better or worse than she may have thought she would? What’s been on her mind? If you’re feeling reticent to even mention the events that happened, thinking it may bring on even more anxiety, don’t be. Talking about traumatic events is an important and healthy way of dealing with the complicated feelings that can surround them. Opening up in an age-appropriate way about your own emotions may help her feel more comfortable sharing hers with you, and may give her words to describe feelings she might not have vocabulary for yet.
2. Keep asking how she’s doing! Bringing up emotional topics isn’t the easiest thing for many people, but this is one issue you’re going to need to revisit after a few weeks and even after a few months. It can take time for people to process traumatic events, and the feelings and emotions that follow can come in waves. So check in with her repeatedly rather than treating this like a one-and-done situation.
3. Focus on the basics—for her and you. Disasters stress our bodies and our brains, so it’s vital to ensure your whole family gets the rest, exercise, healthy food, and hydration needed to operate at their best. Not getting these things—even when things are “normal”—can lead to irritability, anxiety, and other issues. When compounded with the aftermath of a large and disruptive event, a lack of sleep, healthy nutrients, and exercise can be even more damaging.
4. Get her routine back in order When some areas of her life are seriously disrupted by a disaster, it’s even more vital that the areas that can remain somewhat normal are prioritized. Make sure that she keeps to her normal bedtime, that chores are still getting done (even if her chores are a bit different now than they used to be), and that she attends her Girl Scout activities, sports practice, and whatever else she has on her usual schedule as much as possible. Having structure and familiarity where and when it’s practical after an event that may have literally turned her world upside down can provide comfort and a feeling of security.
5. Help friends stick together. Think about how you feel comforted and supported by your friends and loved ones in times of crisis. Your girl relies on her buddies in the same way! If she or her friends have had to move away or enroll in different schools or Girl Scout troops, help her stay in touch with her besties via Skype, text, email, handwritten letter, or an evening visit when possible, even if it takes extra time or effort on your part.
6. Have her help you prepare. There’s a chance your daughter is feeling nervous that your family could experience another event similar to what you’ve just gone through—and even if it’s statistically unlikely, there’s no way to guarantee a future free of natural disasters. Emphasize that although catastrophes on this level are uncommon, you do your best to keep your family safe by preparing supplies and making sure you have an emergency plan in place just in case you should need them. Asking for her to help you put together emergency kits or to help educate younger siblings on what to do should something major happen will help her feel more capable of handling whatever may come her way.
7. Reach out. If you are concerned that your daughter is experiencing a level of distress that you are not equipped to handle alone, or if she remains extremely shaken even months after the event, reach out to a local counselor or psychologist, pediatrician, or faith-based leader in your community for support or a referral for professional guidance. There’s absolutely no shame in needing extra help at times like these, and it’s important that your daughter have all the support she needs to feel safe, secure, and ready to move on.
Even the strongest of people can have difficulty coming to terms with a devastating disaster. Resilience is a quality that’s built over time, but it’s only human to need a helping hand in times of uncertainty. Give your daughter—and yourself—time to heal.