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Talking to kids about the June 17 tornado

While adults wrestle with paperwork, rebuilding and bad weather, area children feel the aftermath of the June 17 tornado in their own way.

Nancy Bernstetter works with children at the Neighborhood Counseling Center in Wadena and sees what young people are going through.

"There is no normal way for kids to react to natural disasters. They just have to be allowed to go through it however they need to go through it," Bernstetter said.

Children do not comprehend natural disasters the same way as adults, she said.

"They just know something really scary happened," Bernstetter said. "In some cases their homes were destroyed, or their school was destroyed, or their pool was destroyed, but they don't really understand how it happened, or why it happened, or -- the biggest thing is -- how soon it's going to happen again."

She said that children in different age groups have different ways to process what happened.

Children under 5 or 6 assume their parents are all-powerful.

"All of a sudden along comes this big tornado and Mom and Dad were not able to keep their land safe, keep their houses safe, and so it throws off their whole feeling of security and stability," Bernstetter said.

She said this age group has not yet developed abstract thought and a sense of objectivity.

"Kids under 5 or 6 tend to be very egocentric; they think things happen because of them," she said. "So all of a sudden there's a lot more stress in the home because of the damages or because of the extra work that has to be done, because of having to move, because of having to deal with insurance companies, all those kinds of things that cause stress. So all kids feel is a whole lot of stress in the home. And all of a sudden they feel like it's their fault."

Around age 8 or 9, kids begin developing abstract thought but have a harder time verbalizing it, she said. They may express their feelings in terms of what is going on with their own lives, complaining about being unable to go to a friend's house or angrily

disagreeing about a decision to move. "They still may not understand why Mom and Dad are making all the decisions that they are," Bernstetter said. "It's their frustration and their fears that they're going to express."

In the age group of adolescence, Bernstetter said, connection with friends and being able to talk about how the tornado affected each other is important.

She said that high school students entering their senior year may especially have a difficult time.

"They've looked forward to their senior year and all of a sudden, everything's changed," Bernstetter said. "They're not going to be in the same building."

She said that kids in general feel especially powerless. "We talk around them and we don't get their input," Bernstetter said. "So all of a sudden they're making these changes and they don't understand why it's coming about."

"I've talked to many kids this summer who had to cancel family vacations, who had to cancel having friends come to visit, who all of a sudden had to change their swimming lessons, had to change their summer rec. And they didn't understand why. It put their whole summer up in limbo for them. And they have no idea when it will go back to normal. Kids thrive with structure; they thrive with knowing what's going to happen when, and all of a sudden that's turned upside down," she said.

Bernstetter said parents should keep communicating with their children. Kids may be irritable, clingy and fearful of being away from parents, she said. They may throw more tantrums and have more nightmares.

"If the sky turns dark at all they will become very fearful," Bernstetter said. She said parents can reassure kids by reminding them that they kept them safe during the first tornado and will continue to keep them safe.

Bernstetter also said that parents can also tell kids not to worry until they tell them, "Get to the basement."

Parents can use storm warnings to educate children that not all storms are tornadoes, and that not all sirens or tornado warnings lead to actual tornadoes, she said.

Bernstetter said that kids, especially younger children, thrive with structure. If possible, parents should use the same day care and find time to be together.

"It's so much harder to do it than to say it," Bernstetter said. "I've talked to many, many families who have just been fighting with insurance companies or with trying to get a house that they can live in." She said that being able to find a short time to connect can help kids cope.

Parents should keep boundaries and expectations the same, she said. Having kids sleep in their own beds, clean up their rooms, and resuming life assures them that their parents are acting normal and everything is okay.

Bernstetter has worked with kids under the age of 7-8 for more than 20 years, and she uses play therapy to get them to express their feelings. She has them draw and tell stories and watches for signs of aggression and fear.

She said kids can also put together a safety box to put in the basement in case of another tornado. By having children talk about what they want in the safety box, adults give them a way to process their feelings about the tornado.

"What kids need most during this time is to know that their parents love them, that they're going to provide for them," Bernstetter said.

She said if parents themselves are afraid of storms, they should be honest about that while reassuring kids that they will be OK.

"Be honest with your kids about that so they know they're not going crazy, or that they're not being a baby. Especially for some of the little boys, they don't want to have to think they're a wuss. So I think that reassuring them that whatever they're going through is OK," Bernstetter said.

She said that parents should look into help outside the home if a young child has significant changes in sleep patterns, changes in eating habits and falling grades. Little kids may experience separation anxiety and irritability, while for adolescents the stress may manifest itself as losing interest in friends and normal activities.

On the other hand, Bernstetter said, most kids are able to get through the tornado aftermath without mental health intervention.

"If they have someone that believes in them, and someone they can depend on, they can handle most everything," she said.

Bernstetter said that shortly after the tornado, the Neighborhood Counseling Center conducted a class for parents of children affected by the tornado.

"If we know there's enough interest, we'd be glad to do it again," she said.

She also expressed support for Camp Noah, even though the Neighborhood Counseling Center is not directly involved with it. "I think that is a wonderful way for kids to get together and talk to other kids who have gone through the same experience, get support, get education, find out that what they're feeling is very normal and is OK. I would encourage every child who has experienced this in one way or another to go to that."

Camp Noah will be held this Monday through Friday, Aug. 16-20, at the Wadena-Deer Creek Elementary School. Christie Meier, associate in ministry at Immanuel Lutheran Church, said walk-ins could register on Monday. To contact Meier, call (218) 371-1515.

The Neighborhood Counseling Center may be reached at (218) 631-1714.