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Parenting Column: Eight tips for helping children cope with crisis

By Cindy Hartwig  
Parenting Columnist, Canyon Lake Insider  

I still vividly recall the screaming sirens as I fled barefoot in the snow in my Christmas pajamas along the icy path to safety illuminated by the whirling red lights piercing the darkness against the eerie orange backdrop.

In the distance, rescue workers and volunteers from our small town fervently fought the incessant flames as they threatened to consume my east coast childhood home. I recall my dad reassuring me through smoke-induced bloodshot eyes and heat-singed brows as I fought sleep that night in the comfort of a relative’s house.

When we were finally permitted to re-enter our scorched home, I located the charred remnants of my favorite doll lying in an ash-peppered puddle of water. I later learned how fortunate we were to have survived the ordeal with the absence of smoke detectors to alert us to the ominous smoke and flames that rapidly encroached upon our upstairs bedrooms as we slept.

With the recent local fires, so many families are now faced with the plight of helping their children return to normal after fleeing their schools and homes due to evacuations. Many parents may be observing signs of distress at home including crying, emotional outbursts, bedwetting, nightmares, or lack of appetite.

As educators, we are frequently asked about suggestions for guiding children through difficult situations. The following are helpful tips for successful parenting amidst troubling circumstances:

  1. Establish Routines
    Children feel safe with predictable routines. Even if you are displaced, try to regain some level of normalcy for your child by reintroducing consistent meal and bedtimes. Establishing a nightly bedtime story is not only a comforting routine but may also help with sleep disruptions.
  2. Minimize Change
    Change is an inevitable part of life, especially after a crisis, but there is wisdom in minimizing those changes for which we have control. This is not an ideal time to introduce new skills such as toilet training or weaning children off attachment objects such as pacifiers, stuffed animals, or blankets.
  3. Use Words
    Trials provide a great opportunity to expand vocabulary to articulate feelings. Children can be prompted to use “feelings words” such as happy, sad, mad, and scared to work through their confusing emotions. Young children can also point to visual cues that you can draw for them. It is important to note that it is best to use this exercise when they are still in control, rather than during an emotional meltdown.
  4. Limit Media
    Most of us turn to the media in search of critical information pertaining to newsworthy events. It is advisable to use caution around children who may experience anxiety from continuous viewing of troublesome images.
  5. Give Choices
    Children, like adults, try to gain control over their circumstances, especially when things feel out of control. Sometimes, these efforts are manifested in unacceptable actions. When appropriate, try to give healthy outlets for exercising control by empowering them with some basic choices. Would you like to eat macaroni or spaghetti tonight? Would you like to go to the beach or the park on Saturday? Remember to keep the choices simple so that your child doesn’t feel overwhelmed and be patient while they consider their answer. Remember that some
    personalities are quicker decision-makers than others.
  6. Help Others
    Children can be egocentric by nature. Getting out and helping someone less fortunate as a family not only assists the recipients but expands awareness and provides intrinsic gratification for the benevolent. Local schools and churches are great resources for community service projects in your area.
  7. Manage Stress
    In the event of a change in cabin pressure, airline flight attendants routinely instruct adult passengers to put the oxygen masks on themselves before they offer them to their children. The rationale is that if the parent loses consciousness from a lack of oxygen, they won’t be able to help their child. The same premise applies to other aspects of parenting. If you are struggling emotionally, you may not be able to adequately meet your child’s needs, so it is important to manage your own stress as well.
  8. Seek Help
    Lastly, get help if needed. Do not hesitate to get assistance from a professional counselor or another mental health professional if signs of distress persist or are not manageable. In some cases, those affected by crisis may exhibit symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a disorder that may be diagnosed after exposure to a tragedy.

As parents, we are the primary influence in the lives of our children and have many occasions to seize teachable opportunities, including life’s challenges. No one delights in facing a crisis, but trials if handled correctly can shape character and build confidence. Remember, your child may one day be a parent themselves and will lead by your good example.

Cindy Hartwig is a parenting coach and consultant specializing in start-ups, growth, and expansion for churches and schools. She works with children, parents, educators, administrators, board members, accreditation teams, and pastors to strategize and implement best practices in education. Hartwig resides in Canyon Lake and is co-founder of 1 Focus Counseling.

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