CYCLONE GABRIELLE: Recovery Advice for Parents
Hi there. My name's Catherine Gallagher and I'm a Clinical Psychologist who works with children and families in Ōtautahi in Christchurch.
The reason we're doing this video is to reach out and offer support and information for you guys at this really, really tough time. As a Cantarbrian, we've been through a few tough times ourselves, 12 years today actually since one of the big earthquake events. And of course, that wasn't the same experience you guys are living through, but it was similar. And there's been some learnings and some experience that we've garnered together over the years and in my work with both family and with colleagues and with clients that may well be useful for you guys at this time.
It's really important to know though that this is your own experience, and so as you're going to be, I'm sure bombarded with lots of information from lots of really well-meaning people, me included, that you need to pick and choose the things that feel useful for you. Some stuff is going to land really well. Some stuff might land okay, but you're not ready for it and some stuff might not land at all, and that's actually okay because yourselves and you know your kids and so really important to gather together a kitty that feels of use to you now.
I think when we're going through such a tough time, it can feel completely overwhelming, like where do you start? And it's such a complicated situation with so many layers that it's really easy to feel overwhelmed. I suppose my shout out to you would be to just give yourself some time and go back to the basics because those basics matter and I think that when we are busily searching for that complex solution, we can sometimes feel a little bit lost and in fact, the most complicated solutions are often actually starting with really basic first steps and those first steps are really important.
So in terms of first steps for you, actually the first steps are those really basic human needs. Are you safe? Are you warm? Do you have food? That stuff really matters because if we are not feeling safe, then some of that higher level thought and thinking and wondering and worrying actually doesn't count because actually our systems aren't settled enough to take that on board. So if those are issues for you, then really important that you are taking care and advocating because that's what your kids need and that's what you need.
Alongside getting those things done or once those things are in place. Then the other basics, the biggest basics is to take care of yourself. Your kids need you to be in the best shape you can be in and at the moment that might not be great, but it's as good as it can be, and please prioritize that because your kids are looking to you to know how safe to feel. They're looking to you to know how safe they can feel, and I think that at the moment you might not have all the answers for that. You might not actually be feeling very safe, and that's actually okay, but as much as you can do, if you can settle, if you can regulate yourself, if you can be as calm as you possibly can, take care of yourself, then your nervous system is going to be talking to your kid's nervous system and that means that they can then start to feel safe and more settled. So if all you take from this talk is the permission to take care of yourself, please take that and run with it. Yeah, Another really useful thing to keep in mind with regard to having gone through really scary experiences like this is to tell your kids what's going on around them. Sometimes obviously we want to protect them, but if we protect them too much, then their little minds are running away with them and they can fill in the gaps that we are not filling in. So if you can try and give them enough information that's age appropriate about what's gone on, what is going on and what might be some next steps, be as much as you can do.
Now, of course, like everything, there's a flip side because too much information can lead to that sense of overwhelm. So you might not have the news on all the time on the, you might not be showing them the internet, all the Google news or all kind of stuff all the time. Little snippets, you translating that news into their kind of language and things that might understand is really important, but just having free reign over the news is probably not as helpful for you or for them.
The other thing that can be really helpful is to give them time and space and invitations to talk about what has happened. Again, really natural when you've gone through a tough time to go, "Phew, we got through that. Now let's move on. Let's be positive. Let's not think about it." Well, unfortunately the brain doesn't work that way when it has a really scary experience that sort of sits outside its experience or its frame, it really wants to make sense of it so it can extract the wise lesson and kind of know what to do next time.
Now, that means that we have to think about stuff that's happened to us and when something's been scary, we don't often put down those memories or lay down those memories in a very organized way. So questions and memories and nightmares and all of those things which can seem pretty distressing, can actually be the brain's attempt to try and make sense of that messy experience. So if kids have memories, encourage them to talk about them. You might actually support them and actually filling in some gaps that their brain hasn't got yet. As a family you might say, "Well, hey, remember when that happened and what did you do? Oh, and I remember that happened, but when did that fit in?" So you're actually trying to start to piece together the story of this experience so that can help their brain be settled about it.
It's also really important for them to talk about their worries, so they might have some worries about what's going to happen next and you might not actually know the answers to that. That's okay to tell them. I suppose the things you can lock down is "We're going to be okay, this is really tough right now, we're going through some tough times. I might not have all the answers, but guess what we do know? We do know that we love each other, that we are safe, that we've got support and that we've got some steps ahead of us and those steps at the moment might be the next hour, might be the next day and in time we're going to be able to look forward a little bit more." So it's good to give space to those concerns and those worries. Read more: What if my child doesn't want to talk about their worries?
But if you notice your child is worrying a lot, if there's a lot of what ifs, what if that happens? What if there's another flood? What if then that might be something that's really appropriate to boundary a little bit, so we want to allow some time to talk about those things, but if you notice your child or yourself ramping up, and a lot of the questions are based in the future about future things, what if these things might happen? Then it is really appropriate to say, "Hey, do you know what? I reckon that's your worry brain kicking off. Let's actually just take a deep breath. Let's have a cuddle. Let's settle down and let's go off and throw the ball around or let's go and do something and change the tune a little bit." Because spending too much time in the space of those worries isn't too helpful.
Now, if you are a bit of a worrier as a parent, if you are feeling pretty freaked out by it, that can be pretty hard to contain, so catch your own worries and notice that when you might need a bit of a break or you might need some other resources around you because what we know as worries can be contagious, and if you are having a hard time containing yours, then that can make it harder for the kids.
Of course, that doesn't mean you're not going to have worries. This was a situation worthy of fear. Absolutely, and in fact to say to the kids, "Look, I was really scared." They probably saw you scared and explain that and talk about that and normalize that. I suppose it's just a matter of those worries are getting in the way of your functioning and finding it really hard for you to feel settled at all, then that's when some extra support might be useful and to tag team a little bit. So there might be times when another parent or another adult feels a bit calmer, and if you need to take some time out, then that's a really good thing to do.
It's also really helpful to try and get routines up and running as quickly as possible. Now, there may not be routines that you're used to that the old routines, you might be sleeping in different beds, you might be being in different houses, you might be all over the place, but as much as possible, even amongst that change, if there can be things that can be made routine as much as possible, that's really handy because the brains love to know what's happening next. Even it's where's my toothbrush and do I have my normal flavor toothpaste or that this is how we do dinner times or this is what's happening right now.
So trying to put a frame around that stuff so your child's brains can kind of settle and know what to expect can make us all feel a little bit more settled and talking of things like bedtime, if bedtimes, of course they're going to be all over the show, but after a while, as much as you can be settling into some new routines around that. Talking of bedtime, it might be that you're sharing beds because people might be feeling a bit unsafe and a bit unsettled. That's all fine, whatever makes people get some sleep and when the dust settles, you can take care of things like settling them back into their own beds, but that might not be a priority right now, and that's absolutely fine.
I mentioned before about the basics when there's so much stuff that's out of control. If you can try and eat as well as you possibly can, obviously food availability is going to come into that, but eating and sleeping and having settle time and can be really important. Try and get some sunshine, try and get some exercise, and if you can slip in some fun there, are there some games? Are there some times when, yes, there's lots of problems we need to deal with, but can we actually just get the cards out or the monopoly or can we go for a walk? Can we throw the ball around? Because those are things that just give your nervous system a bit of respite, a bit of a change, a bit of connected time, and that can make us all feel a little bit more settled.
Read more: How does sleep affect anxiety?
One thing that's been suggested and really, really handy is it can also be really useful to get your kids involved in the cleanup or some aspect of sorting things. Now, of course, we're not going to get out there from dawn till dusk sorting this stuff out, but if they can get out there and shovel some silt or tidy something up or make a bed, that can be really handy because if they can look back on this experience and be reminded of when they showed some agency or were able to feel powerful and involved and brave, then those are the things that can really help them feel better about this experience when they look back on it, have some sense of agency, so that's not only helps you out, but it's also good for their mental health.
Bottom line is yourself and your kids, and that's really important information as you go through this experience. You'll manage this as you typically manage life and your kids are used to that. They're used to you, so you can't really get this wrong. Hey, you're going to make mistakes, you're going to overreact, under react and that's okay. There's this thing called rupture and repair, and that's really permission for us as parents to get stuff wrong and have do-overs, and the key thing is to pay enough attention so that we can actually listen in and notice and yeah, touch base with kids and make sure that they're okay, and if we have got it wrong, acknowledge it.
"Whoa, I lost my temper there. Hey, there's a lot of stuff on board. I'm pretty full up, so I'm really sorry about that, guys, I needed to take a deep breath. Now let's try that again." That kind of experience wasn't a mistake, that was actually about being real, and it's important for your kids to see that. The main thing is to love them, take care of them yourself. Be curious and you're going to be okay. Hey, and take care.
Catherine Gallagher is a Clinical Psychologist with oVRcome that works with children and families in Christchurch.