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As Ky. flood response continues, experts give advice on how to help kids cope

People are pitching flood-damaged items outside of their house like this one near Jenkins, Ky.
Justin Hicks
People are pitching flood-damaged items outside of their house like this one near Jenkins, Ky.

Eastern Kentucky’s historic flooding has taken the lives of at least 39 people, but thousands more have been affected — by the loss of their homes, schools, social safety nets and communities. 

Children are feeling the loss and anxiety as their families work to rebuild. WFPL News spoke with two child mental health experts who explained how kids may process trauma differently and what their caregivers can do to help. 

What to look for 

Melissa Brymer is the director of terrorism and disaster programs at the UCLA-Duke University National Center for Child Traumatic Stress. She said stress can manifest in different ways, depending on the age of the child

“They'll be looking at some of the concrete things, especially the youngest,” she said. “If they have their favorite stuffie that wasn't brought with them. It could be not being able to go home, not being able to go to their school, wondering about their classmates or their favorite teacher.”

She said younger kids may act out, become more clingy or regress developmentally. Older kids might show stress by fighting more with siblings, or having trouble with school or sleep. 

“But I would say if these reactions continue in about four to six weeks, talk to a school counselor or a pediatrician or mental health provider, and just see if it might be worth getting a little extra support for your kids or for your family,” she said.

Talk to children 

It’s important for adults to open the conversation and be honest with children about what’s happening in a way that’s age-appropriate, Brymer said.

“Some kids may talk about it, some may not,” she said. “And so as adults, we should open up the conversation and just ask them what they've heard or what they've seen or what questions they have, and start from there. Let kids dictate how the conversation goes.”

Katy Hopkins, child psychologist with Norton Children’s Medical Group, said parents can help facilitate communication by sharing their own feelings. 

“Parents just talking very openly about their feelings, while also demonstrating their ability to manage them is really powerful for kids,” she said, adding that it is empowering for kids to know they share those feelings with family members, which can help them regulate. 

Try to maintain routines 

Hopkins said one of the big stressors of natural disasters is that they’re unpredictable and can shake up a family's sense of normalcy. This can be especially tough for children, who rely on routines to thrive. 

“Even if you are living in temporary housing, or living with other family members, or friends, or in a hotel, trying to maintain regular mealtimes and bedtimes can really help kids navigate stressful and traumatic events,” Hopkins said. 

Children also need time to play, which is important in processing trauma. 

“It allows them to kind of work through those complex feelings and work through different scenarios and solutions to help increase their feelings of stability,” she said. 

The biggest help to children affected by trauma or stress, according to Hopkins, is having close, healthy relationships with trusted adults, which can help maintain a sense of security. 

Limit news media, but point out the helpers 

Hopkins said children, especially younger ones, tend to hold onto images more than words. Ongoing images or videos can have a negative impact, even if the news story is something uplifting about rebuilding, for example. 

She said it’s good to talk with kids about the news they do see and to answer questions they may have. And just as with adults, kids can find strength in bad situations by seeing others do positive things, or even by getting involved themselves. 

“Point out the helpers,” she said, “making a point to discuss with kids all the ways in which people are helping others to either rescue them, help them get better, help them seek stable housing.

“Similar to that, [find] ways that children themselves can be helpers. How can they help with the cleanup? Or how can they help in ways that are safe and appropriate for their age, but give them a sense of agency?”

More information on helping children navigate traumatic events can be found here

Story updated Thursday afternoon following confirmation of another fatality.

Aprile Rickert is LPM's Southern Indiana reporter. Email Aprile at arickert@lpm.org.