Behaviour & Emotions Health & Well-being

Wet and wild: Parenting through yet another storm

Parenting through another storm

After a wet and wild summer of cancelled plans and bent tent poles, the state of emergency alerts ringing out on mobile phones across the country were the last thing parents would have wanted to hear. Our thoughts are with the many whānau in considerable distress at the moment. Any kind of storm can be unsettling for children and thus challenging for parents. It’s completely understandable that families are struggling in the face of back-to-back extreme weather events, whether their homes have been affected or not. The following article offers advice on supporting our kids emotionally through a natural disaster.

Big feelings and even bigger behaviour

When children are distressed, they often don’t use words to tell us how they’re feeling. Instead, we see evidence in their behaviour. They might be afraid to go to sleep at night, or an older child might throw a tantrum – a behaviour we thought they’d grown out of. Actually, as adults we often exhibit our stress through anxiety and irritability too.

It can be hard to know how to support our kids when we ourselves are in distress. It can be hard to do anything when we’re distressed, come to think of it! That’s why our one of our top encouragements for parents is, in the case of an emergency put on your own oxygen mask first. Be aware that this flooding is a significant stressor and be kind to yourself. Notice and accept your own responses and accept your children’s right to feel the emotions that they are feeling, too.

Give kids the language

It’s really helpful for our kids to understand that emotions aren’t bad, and we don’t need to be scared of them. In fact, all emotions are welcome. We can help our children express those big emotions by giving them the language to describe what has happened and how they're feeling. In doing so we are helping normalise our children’s emotions, which in turn makes those big feelings less scary and uncomfortable for them.

If we see some big emotional reactivity in our kids around ‘normal’ or ‘small’ things, we could say something like:

  • “Oh darling, I am wondering if you are feeling worried? That makes sense, with such extremely rare weather happening.”

  • “Oh sweetheart, everything feels really strange at the moment doesn’t it – having to stay at Auntie’s house because we can’t be at home right now.”

  • “You were really looking forward to getting back into school and sport weren’t you, and now I guess you are pretty disappointed?”

Phrases like these provide an opportunity for our children to talk to us and ask us questions, as well as being a powerful way to show empathy and lead our kids back to calm.

Calm explanations from adults are helpful, as opposed to a lot of gasping in horror about what we are seeing on our phone.

Tell the truth

Be prepared to answer questions (several times over) and explain what’s happened. We shouldn’t dismiss our children’s observations or fears and it also doesn’t help to pretend nothing has happened.

For older children who know that they just heard a civil defence alert trilling out of your handbag, you can say, “Yep, that was a civil defence alert. That is the Government making sure we all know that there might be more rain and wind coming so that we can be prepared.”

For younger children you might only need to say: “You were right to notice that funny sound on my phone.” We don’t need to offer more detail than our children ask for, but we do need to be honest and hold space for our children to ask questions about anything that is concerning them.

Calm explanations from adults are helpful, as opposed to a lot of gasping in horror about what we are seeing on our phone. (Disclaimer: I've done my fair share of gasping at footage on my phone in the last weeks!) That said, we definitely don’t need to talk about the flooding and cyclones non-stop. Try to keep things as normal as possible.

Take care with media exposure

There will be ongoing news about storm damage. It pays to assess how much media coverage (if any) your children can cope with. It can be alarming for kids to see so much footage of a natural disaster. It may make them feel like flooding and slips are everywhere, and that it is only a matter of time before they have to evacuate their own house. Watching the news with our kids means we can you check in on how they are processing things. Ask what they think about the cyclone, and gently offer context. “That is a lot of water in their house. Wow, this is an extremely rare weather event causing this flood!”

Explain to your children that the reason everyone is talking about the weather so much is that the flooding and cyclone are highly unusual. It is good to emphasise that things will return to normal soon.

It's good to emphasise that things will return to normal soon.

Processing the events ourselves

In times of crisis like this, our own distress needs to be cared for. Reach out to friends and whānau and talk things through. Do so out of earshot of your kids however, taking care not to speak dramatically in front of your children. Calm breeds calm, but anxiety is equally contagious. Parents having strong and overwhelming emotions can be scary for children to deal with. Our kids need to hear that we are (relatively!) in charge and that we have got a plan to stay safe. Make it your goal to model calm confidence – and while it is okay in moments like this to ‘fake it until you make it’, working on ways to genuinely keep yourself calm is better for everyone in the long run.

Even seemingly small gestures of service and support can go a long way to making people of all ages feel empowered and hopeful.

How helping helps

And finally, let’s acknowledge that this is a tough moment we’re living in. Well, it feels like one tough moment sort of rolls into the next, to be fair! Adults are feeling stretched, stressed and worn down. Our kids are likely feeling the same. If we’re really honest, many of us are feeling overwhelmed.

Here’s a lovely story one of our team shared from her family’s experience during Auckland's recent flooding. She packed some bags with food and useful items, rallied up some donations from neighbours and took it all to the evacuation centre in a nearby suburb. She did this with her kids in tow, and then they all stayed on at the centre for a few hours helping to sort the food and donations. A beautiful thing to do full stop, but here’s the hidden gem – her previously anxious and unsettled children loved their time helping at the centre and wanted to go back the next day. After seeing all the bad news and witnessing neighbours getting flooded, playing a part in helping felt good. It even went as far as taking away their anxiety.

When we feel helpless, helping others can be a remarkably powerful tool. Even seemingly small gestures of service and support can go a long way to making people of all ages feel empowered and hopeful. And hope is what we all need right now, along with a break in the weather and a whole lot of sunshine!


Kristin Ward

Kristin Ward manages the Family Coaching team and enjoys working with tricky dynamics in families. She loves supporting parents to see how they can be on the same team as their kids, no matter what challenging behaviour they are facing. A mum-of-three, Kristin is passionate about seeing whānau thrive and strongly believes there is lots parents can do to build close and warm relationships with their children.

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