Colorado floods: How to talk to kids and stay strong amid disaster
posted by: Guest Blogger
As flood waters destroyed homes and claimed lives in Colorado last week, Neil Rosenthal was reminded what it’s like to lose everything. The Boulder resident has twice had his home burn to the ground, and while his house on Flagstaff Mountain was safe last week, he and his partner were trapped for several days when part of their road washed out.
The sense of loss can be overwhelming when a natural disaster ruins your home and possessions, says Rosenthal, a licensed marriage and family therapist who also writes a syndicated advice column carried in The Denver Post.
“I come at this from two different angles,” Rosenthal said in a phone interview. “The first is from my personal experience and the other is that I’m a professional.”
While everyone in a family is going to feel bad when encountering such a situation, the adults have to be strong and offer reassurance to their kids, he said.
“Let children talk about their fear, their anxiety, their feelings of helplessness, their sadness and their sense of how unfair all this is,” he said. Such emotions are normal and children may need an adult or parent to validate what they are feeling.
“Children also need to know that things are going to be OK, that you will survive this tragedy and you’re going to recover,” Rosenthal said. “They may not have the sense that there is life after this, so you need to give them comfort, warmth and understanding.”
Kids that don’t get such reassurance “might feel helpless and hopeless and are likely to become anxious and depressed.”
For children who are old enough, being able to help with clean-up or repair will help. “There’s healing energy in doing something constructive, whether it’s cleaning out a basement or carrying things to the front lawn,” the therapist said.
Offering comfort to children can be hard to do when parents might feel panicked themselves. In the Colorado floods, people are losing not only their homes in many cases, but their livelihoods as businesses and farms are washed away.
“You can easily get to a place where you are pessimistic and hopeless,” Rosenthal said. “Anxiety, fatigue and sadness take over. You might also complain a lot and prone to saying or doing things that are insensitive, angry or uncaring.”
Try your hardest not to wallow in it or take it out on family members or your spouse, the therapist advised.
“Recovering from loss requires that people believe in themselves, have a strong will to recover and have good coping skills. They need to find some over-arching purpose and reason to live. Because it’s only that attitude will help you recover.”
People also need to be able to ask for help. “Accept resources and don’t let your pride be your enemy,” he said. “There’s humility and comfort in accepting that offer.”
It’s also important for those who have lost homes and jobs to accept that things may never be the same. “Use whatever resources are available to you as quickly and with as much optimism as possible,” he said. “You might not be able to build the same log cabin on the same river, but you can start again somewhere else.”
Good advice, but some people can never get over such an event, he acknowledged. “The trauma will define their life.”
Rosenthal said he made a conscious decision after both the fires he experienced to believe in himself and his ability to move on. “I kept telling myself that I would not let this event destroy my life.”
Suzanne S. Brown