Fostering Resilience in Children After the Derecho and Beyond: For Parents and Caregivers

*Thank you to our partners at Murray, Wilson, and Rose Counseling & Behavioral Services for sharing this information with us!

The derecho that devastated Cedar Rapids and surrounding communities on August 10th has had an impact on all of us. In the weeks following, many people were focused on their initial safety and recovery, while messages of “we were so lucky” and images of neighbors helping neighbors abounded. Over the last couple of months, however, the physical and emotional toll of the storm and subsequent recovery has become overwhelming for some, especially when considered in addition to the stress most of us were already experiencing related to the impact of Covid-19, racial trauma, and our own individual needs. As parents and caregivers, we are finding that these impacts have reached our children as well. 

The impact on children can be seen through increased acting out behaviors (defiance, yelling, aggression), regression (acting younger than they are, speaking in baby talk, wanting you to do more for them), avoidance (not wanting to leave the house, little interest in friends or activities), and sleep (trouble falling or staying asleep, wanting to sleep with you). Managing your child’s needs on top of your own during these times can begin to feel impossible, but there are a few simple steps you can take to support your child. As caregivers you are able to take on an impactful role in developing your child’s resilience – the ability to cope with and adapt to adversity – through this experience, which can improve things for both of you.

Fostering Resilience in childrenHow to Foster Resilience in Your Child

To foster resilience in your child, begin by focusing on connecting with them. According to Dr. Dan Siegel, author of The Whole Brain Child, you can attune to your child’s current needs and emotional experience through sitting together with them, using physical touch, speaking in a soft tone of voice, and asking questions to understand them better. As your child opens up with you, help them to name the emotions they are experiencing. Siegel explains that this helps them to make sense of the experience. 

When naming emotions, you might say something like, “It sounds like you were worried when I didn’t answer the phone.” All emotions are acceptable, so validate any emotion your child felt during and after the derecho. By connecting with your child, validating their emotions and needs, and helping them find words to describe their experience, you are creating the foundation for them to begin resolving the overwhelming feelings that are continuing to create challenges for them.

How to Support Your Child Through Play

Once you have created this foundation, one of the main ways you can support your child is through speaking their language: play. While some children may be open to talking about their experiences and feelings, most children will express themselves most openly and effectively through play. Through play, children can recreate and gain a sense of control and mastery over the terrifying experience. This process can occur through recognition of internal or external resources, awareness of their own safety and survival, or a sense of empowerment regarding their own ability to cope with challenges. 

In his book, Trauma-Proofing Your Kids, Dr. Peter Levine offers guidelines for supporting your child through play. 

  1. Follow your child’s lead. Your child may move through the experience at a different pace than you, and you may feel the urge to encourage the process along more quickly then they feel ready. Take a breath and connect with your child where they are at – this will create the secure and supportive environment that will help them progress.
  2. Tune in to your child’s emotions during play. When your child experiences fear or terror they become dysregulated. This might look like a change in breathing (becoming very heavy OR more constricted), suddenly agitated or restless, dazed, unfocused, or trying to quit playing. When this occurs, simply pause the play while you wait quietly and assure them that you are there with them. Your stable and supportive presence will help them move through the response they are having so play can continue at their pace. On the other hand, experiencing excitement during play often indicates a sense of mastery – support and encourage this as it occurs!

3. Repetition is normal. To help facilitate healthy repetition in your child’s play, look for very small changes to occur within each repetition. Examples could include minor and gradual changes in your child’s emotions through each repetition, increased verbalization, or differing actions or movements. If your child seems to be stuck in the same repetitive action with no change (remembering that changes are small and incremental, so you might have to pay close attention to notice the changes!), you can use curiosity to encourage next steps. For example: “I wonder what we could do to help Mr. Teddy Bear so he doesn’t feel so scared when he hears the thunder?”

4. Maintain a patient and supportive approach. Your child feels safe and secure when they are nurtured by you, and being in your calm and assured presence will create the environment that allows them to heal.

Teaching Child Resilience3 Ways to Engage Your Child in Resilience-Building Play

There are countless ways in which you can join your child in their natural play to positively and effectively support them. Here are a few ideas to get started engaging your children in healthy and resilience-building play:

Playing with Miniature Figures: 

Farm animals, action figures, dolls and dollhouses – whatever you already have at home will work well for this type of play. Children are masterful at using their imaginations to use what they have to express what they need. Allowing your child to take the lead, join them in playing with these figures. Ask them what role you should take on and then notice themes that come up during play (are they trying to fight, run away, take care of each other?). Be present and focused with your child, and ready to use curiosity to help them identify helpers, strengths, and creative solutions to resolve the emotions that arise during play. 

Drawing a Body Map: 

Trace your child’s body on a large piece of paper, then provide a variety of colors for your child to draw the emotions and sensations they feel. For example, they may feel squiggles or rumbles in their tummy, tightness or pounding in their chest, or heat in their cheeks or hands. Remember to notice the pleasant and neutral sensations too! Then, explore with your child what they want to do with those sensations – stomp their feet, yell it out, cry, or wrap up in a blanket (or a hug!) to name a few. Addressing the physical sensations allows your child to physically release the pent-up tension being held in their bodies, which leads to a sense of resolution. 

Rhymes and Movement: 

If uncomfortable feelings seem “stuck”, read the Oscar Opossum poem to your child and use visualization and movement throughout the story to help them release the stuck feelings. Pause periodically to ask questions, explore how these feelings relate to your child’s experience, and act out the movements with your child. 

Oscar Opossum 

By Peter Levine and Maggie Kline 

Oscar Opossum is slow as molasses 

He plods right along, while everyone passes 

When he sees coyote, he can’t run, so instead 

He rolls up in a ball and pretends that he’s dead! 

Oscar escapes, you see, by lying quite still 

Not like the rabbit who runs up the hill! 

Oscar has all his energy boiling inside 

From holding his breath to pretend that he died.

Can you pretend that you’re Oscar rolled up in a ball? 

You’re barely breathing, and you feel very small. 

It’s cold and it’s lonely as you hold on tight 

Hoping coyote will not take a bite! 

Do you remember ever feeling this way? 

You wanted to run, but you had to stay. 

Were you scared, were you sad, did it make you mad? 

Can you tell what you felt to your mom or your dad? 

Oscar Opossum has to lie low 

But inside his body, he’s ready to blow. 

When Charlie Coyote finally takes off 

Oscar Opossum gets up and shakes off. 

See Oscar tremble, see Oscar shake 

Just like the ground in a little earthquake. 

After he trembles and shakes for awhile 

He feels good as new, and walks off with a smile! 

Coyote has gone, now get up and run 

But first you might tremble and shake in the sun, 

Before long you can jump, you can skip, you can stomp 

Or play in the meadow and have a good romp. 

Feel the blood flow through your heart and your chest 

Now you are safe and now you can rest! 

Fostering resilience through playIn addition to these approaches to directly address the impact of the derecho on your child, you can further empower them to feel capable and confident within their daily actions: 

  1. Provide your child with choices when possible to help them feel a sense of control and influence over their environment. Examples include picking out their own clothes, helping plan a family meal, or choosing a family activity to do together before bedtime. 
  2. Engage them in age-appropriate problem solving to bolster their sense of capability. Examples include encouraging siblings to find a way to share a preferred toy, making a plan for managing school work, or supporting your child is independently trying something new.
  3. Teach your child skills to manage their physical response to emotions. Examples include taking deep breaths, squeezing a ball, or moving their body (dancing, running, jumping). 
  4. Create enjoyable and meaningful moments together. Laugh, sing, play, be silly, and maintain important traditions. Balance the difficult moments you’ve experienced with positive moments, and then talk about these with your child so they stand out in their memory.

Thank you to Molly Martin, LISW from Murray, Wilson, and Rose Counseling and Behavioral Services for sharing this information with us. Murray, Wilson, & Rose offers counseling and support services for individuals and families, children, teens, and adults. Visit their website for more information!