December 15, 2021

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How do you talk to kids facing trauma after Kentucky’s deadly tornado?

A child walks through damage from the 2021 Kentucky tornado
A child walks through damage from the 2021 Kentucky tornado

The recent tornados and resulting death and destruction will leave scars on the communities they devastated for months—and likely years—to come. Another less instantly obvious impact of the storms is the damage done to the mental health of residents—especially young people.

Beth England is a mental health professional volunteering at one of the temporary shelters for the displaced in Bowling Green. She said parents and guardians should avoid pressuring their children into talking about their experiences during the storms.

“They’ll talk to you in their time and space and way, and just be attuned to that. And make sure you answer their questions. Like right now, kids have a lot of questions. I’ve got a lot of, ‘Well, what happens if it does it again tonight?’, because now they associate it with nighttime.”Becca Schimmel spoke with Beth England, a mental health professional volunteering at a Bowling Green shelter for the displaced.

England said kids handle trauma differently than adults because they don’t have the vocabulary to put into words how they’re feeling or how scared they might be. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, those signs vary depending on age. Some children will have appetite problems, challenges sleeping, or concentrating. Young people are often able to weather traumatic events with the right environment. Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child says the most common factor for children who develop resilience is at least one stable and committed relationship with a supportive adult.

England said children thrive when they have reliable routines, which is what many of them are missing right now. She had some suggestions for what parents can do to help their kids process what happened:

  • Be present and spend time with them.
  • Ask how they’re feeling but understand it may take time for them to talk.
  • Answer their questions and encourage them to ask.

England said being displaced for an extended period of time can lead to increased anxiety, depression, and other mental health challenges. She said everyone is going to process their trauma differently, but it’s important not to numb yourself to the difficulty.

“As a society we have a hard time talking about our feeling and cases like this we need to. We need to connect,” she said.

England said before mental health challenges can be addressed, people need food, shelter and community. People who are in need can stay at Jennings Creek Elementary School where the Red Cross is providing food and shelter. Those who want to help can find resources here.
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