helping kids recover storm trauma

How to Help Children Recover from the Trauma of a Storm

Dr. Steven Berkowitz is a child trauma psychologist.  I reached out to him last week and ask if he'd take the time to help all of you out there helping children cope with the aftermath of Harvey. And now with Irma barreling down on Florida and an unknown path for Jose, it looks like storm season is really a hard one for many of us. (He has previously talked about helping children deal with the emotions of terrorism.)

In this special episode, we're running over our usual ten minutes and this episode is different from others. Kip and I met last week to determine what we could do to help. We want all of you out there who are hurting to know that you are not alone. I hope this will be a resource that helps many of you. (Thank you to everyone on the #10MT team who helped turn this show around so quickly. Our hearts and prayers are with our friends who are hurting.)


Some ways to help:

recovery after a storm psychology (1)

Enhanced Transcript

Helping Kids Recover from the Trauma of a Storm

From Audio File: SPECIAL-EPISODE-HARVEY-Steven-Berkowitz
Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Vicki: Today we’re talking with Dr. Steven Berkowitz. He is the Director of the Penn Center for Youth and Family Trauma Response and Recovery and someone that I’ve turned to quite a few times in my podcasting career when we need to talk to kids about trauma. Today we’re going to talk about helping kids cope with the trauma of a storm.

Where do we start?

So, Steven, there are so many people who are struggling with what has happened with Hurricane Harvey in Texas, and there are even kids that are watching this. Today we’re really going to focus on those kids that are dealing with what’s going on right now. Where do we even start with this sort of trauma?

Steven: Ahhh… It’s hard to know, isn’t it? I think the first thing that we have to recognize is that it’s really safety and security that comes first. Nobody is going be able to feel secure until they’re in a situation where there’s some sense that there’s going to a routine, regularity, and they know what the future holds – which of course is really, really hard in this situation.

The importance of re-establishing routines quickly

Vicki: And some people say, “Let’s just let them recover, and then the school will just start whenever,” but aren’t there some cases of when you do want to try to get them back on a routine and you do want to get them back in school?

Steven: Absolutely. And it’s really important that kids are back in school, and parents are back at work. The dilemma, of course, is how to do that. In this case, the devastation is so profound – and how long it’s going to take to actually recover is anyone’s guess.

And so the question really is, “How do we actually energize and help people who have been displaced – and may be displaced for a while – get into situations, get into communities that can be supportive so they can return to (a maybe displaced) but somewhat regular situations and lives?”

I mean, we learned a lot from Katrina. And one of the things that I think we really learned is that having people sit around, not do anything, in camps or something like that is really devastating for their well-being.

So, the crucial thing is to get people back to work and kids back to school. And whether that’s working the recovery, with a hammer and nail, or going to school somewhere in trailers that are convenient and safe – absolutely crucial.

Finding a new normal after the storm

Vicki: It’s just so hard. And isn’t there a case for a “new normal” because one thing that I found with the floods of ’94 that we had here in south Georgia was that – you know, you get rescued, you get out of the home that’s flooded — but somehow children expect that they’re going to be able to go back, and everything is going to be just like it was. And when it isn’t, they have a hard time coping.

Steven: I think that’s not only true of kids, I think that’s true of everybody. I think younger kids, of course, don’t have the cognitive capacity to understand the reality. And there is absolutely a new normal… and it’s really, really crucial that in whatever developmental phase your child is in if you’re really subjected to this devastation, is to help explain what’s going on and what the reality is, and what the future holds to the best of your knowledge.

Nothing will be the same for these people. As you know, in these situations the people who are most likely to be impacted in a negative way are those that don’t have the resources. So if you have family in Atlanta, and you can fly to Atlanta and be supported by your family, that makes a big difference. If you are the families in Houston, you have nowhere to go.

What do you say to children?

Vicki: So what kind of things do you say to your children? You said try to get them back into a routine as soon as you can. Talk to them about the new normal and the new reality. What other kinds of things do parents and teachers need to talk to kids about?

Steven: Well, be very honest about how everybody’s feeling, and what they’re concerned about, and not with tears and upset, but with, “You know, I’m worried too. I don’t know what’s going to happen next. Our job is going to be to take care of you, and we will do the best we can. And the whole country is here to help you. That’s what we’re going to work on. But we’re going to have to do this all together.”

I think that one of the most important things for any kid – and any adult – is to get active. Do not just sit around and wait for things to happen.

Mistakes that people make during times of recovery

Vicki: So besides being inactive and not getting back to work and getting yourself busy, are there any other big mistakes that parents and caregivers make with children in trauma?

Steven: Well, one of the things that we all want to do is say, “It’s going to be OK.” Act as if it’s going to be OK. And when that’s just not true, it’s not good for anybody. And it’s not good for kids.

So, it’s really important to be as authentic as possible with them. Again, they don’t have to know every detail, maybe just be supportive. But it’s important to let them know what is going on and what the concerns are.

Also, to be very clear that “This is a major, major deal. It’s not a game. It’s real. And you need to be able to be part of our plan to support each other and to move ahead.”

So, the idea that they’re not involved – somehow, “You don’t have to worry about anything,” – that’s just not fair, and it’s not accurate.

Everything is NOT going to be OK, and that’s fine to say, “It’s going to be different. Yes, we need you actively involved with us to move forward as a family.”

How do we get help for the fears of families?

Vicki: How about dealing with the fear? As you know, many families kind of have a stigma with seeing a psychologist. And – they really NEED to – this is trauma. If somebody has a broken arm, they go to the doctor. But if someone has a broken heart or a broken mind, ummmm… Many times people don’t get help, and the children are the ones who suffer. So, how do we get help for their fears, and for the fears in the adults?

Steven: Well, I think again… we have learned a great deal since Katrina, Sandy… and hopefully, with the federal government’s support, we have very good programs and models in place now, where with crisis counseling there’s several very well done guides and books and training that have been done.

So, the key piece is really through outreach in these situations. [It’s about] going to where people are, supporting them, helping them recognize what their reactions are, and engaging them in that particular situation. A lot of this can be done in outreach, with people who are well supervised but don’t necessarily have the degrees. And most people still recover.

The key piece in these situations in the crisis counseling program is to really identify those people who are really struggling, and help get the help they need. So, I think it really is about outreach. You can imagine, when you’re devastated – you lost your home, you may have lost family or friends (or not know where they are). The last thing on your mind is thinking about getting therapy.

Vicki: (agrees)

Steven: So, that’s why the outreach, the group support, all of that – is a way to engage families and kids. There are shelters that do that routinely. Hopefully, when things get a little bit more stable, that kind of approach can take place. These shelters are going to be in operation for a long time.

A message to schools dealing with the aftermath of a storm

Vicki: (agrees) So, what’s your message to schools?

Steven: (Whew!) Heh. Yeah. It’s a really important and complicated question. What happens when you get students that are coming from the Houston area into your school or Louisiana or Oklahoma? It is really a complex environment. You have devastated kids and families. So, schools as often is the case, now have to take on multiple important roles. One of the most important roles is NOT thinking that education and learning are the primary practice. It really is about integrating and supporting these new kids into this new culture and climate of a new school and new community.

For those temporary schools, it’s going to be a similar kind of thing because these are probably a large group of people who have never had any experience with one another. It’s rebuilding from the get-go.

And so, really supporting just normal functioning and development. I’m not saying, “Don’t teach.” I’m just saying, “That’s not the primary function at this point.”

Vicki: (agrees) Just getting them back. It’s such an important – I mean we need to be having these conversations. I mean, don’t some people just deal with this sort of thing by, “Oh, let’s just pretend like everything’s normal.”

Steven: That’s what we hope, right? If we just keep going and put our heads down, everything will go away. All the problems will disappear. “Get thee behind me, Satan!” Right?

Again, that’s very common and very understandable. And by the way, if you can do it, go for it! It’s great! If you can make that work. It’s very hard. And particularly in situations like this, the trauma is not the storm. It’s not the moment. It’s going to be ongoing for months for many people – if not longer.

As the losses pile up, there’s also this kind of your ability to deal with eroding, with all of the challenges that come up.

Having empathy for those dealing with the stress of the storm

Vicki: Yeah, because sometimes, you know… OK, if it’s one thing. OK, it’s one thing. If it’s two things, it’s two things. I mean, some people lose their temper at getting stuck in traffic. But this isn’t traffic. I mean, this is your home and your insurance and your health maybe have problems. Or your school. Or your job. I mean, it’s every single thing in their whole life. And that is really hard for most people to comprehend.

You know, my Facebook feed is full of some people who’ve lost everything, and other people who are whining because somebody took their coffee at Starbucks. And it’s just a totally different level of problem.

Steven: Absolutely. We can’t judge people at all for their concerns, and context is really important. But if you think about your normal everyday stresses that get to you, this is beyond most of our imaginations. Right now, in an odd way, while it’s really in the midst of the crisis, it’s almost easier to manage. It’s when – I think the analogy I often use is – when a family member passes, there’s so much support, and you’re busy, and you almost don’t have time to think about your feelings.

And it’s really about a week or two weeks later, where it really hits. This is the kind of thing that – once the floodwaters recede, it’s going to really hit. It’s really just crucial, the connectedness and the community that’s going to help kids in particular ride this out.

Do people come out stronger?

Vicki: Yeah. Steven, you’ve given us so much to think about. Could you leave us all on an up note? Could you tell us, you know… Is there hope? Are there things, you know… Do you see people working through these and coming out stronger?

Steven: Absolutely. I think the hope is… Really, what we have seen are the amazing number of people that have responded in whatever way they can, whether it’s physically, or with money or food. That is where the hope is, coming together supporting and helping people who have been impacted so strongly. And that just makes us better. That makes everybody better. One way to think about it is that this is a huge crisis. There’s so much opportunity to come together in these crisis situations.

Vicki: And that’s what we need to do. We’ll include in the Shownotes some schools that are trying to adopt schools in Houston, there are principals who are connecting. There are ways to connect. And it helps all of us to be connected and be there for each other, because – you know, it’s somebody in Houston today. It’ll be you tomorrow. It was me yesterday. I mean we were dealing with the tornadoes and the winds here in south Georgia just back in January. We still have people recovering. But when we’re there for each other, it really does give us hope, doesn’t it?

Steven: Absolutely. Community is so important. We are social beings, and it helps the victims and the survivors, and it also helps the people who are helping.

Vicki: So educators, thank you for listening to this special episode of the “Ten Minute Teacher.” Again, we decided to go longer than ten minutes because this is an important topic that we needed to discuss. I hope that it’ll be something that you can share, and really help those [in need]. And if you’re listening, and you are impacted by Harvey or any other disaster – You are important. You are cared about. There are many of us who love you very much and are praying for you. And you are not alone.

Transcribed by Kymberli Mulford

Bio as Submitted

Steven Berkowitz, M.D is a Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist and an Associate Professor of Clinical Psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania, and the Director of the Penn Center for Youth and Family Trauma Response and Recovery, which provides evidence-based practices for traumatized youth.

In addition, he is the Medical Director of the new Integrated Care Program at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Healthy Minds Healthy Kids.

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Vicki Davis

Vicki Davis is a full-time classroom teacher and IT Director in Georgia, USA. She is Mom of three, wife of one, and loves talking about the wise, transformational use of technology for teaching and doing good in the world. She hosts the 10 Minute Teacher Podcast which interviews teachers around the world about remarkable classroom practices to inspire and help teachers. Vicki focuses on what unites us -- a quest for truly remarkable life-changing teaching and learning. The goal of her work is to provide actionable, encouraging, relevant ideas for teachers that are grounded in the truth and shared with love. Vicki has been teaching since 2002 and blogging since 2005. Vicki has spoken around the world to inspire and help teachers reach their students. She is passionate about helping every child find purpose, passion, and meaning in life with a lifelong commitment to the joy and responsibility of learning. If you talk to Vicki for very long, she will encourage you to "Relate to Educate" or "innovate like a turtle" or to be "a remarkable teacher." She loves to talk to teachers who love their students and are trying to do their best. Twitter is her favorite place to share and she loves to make homemade sourdough bread and cinnamon rolls and enjoys running half marathons with her sisters. You can usually find her laughing with her students or digging into a book.

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