The Tricky Topic of Natural Disasters

It’s hard to believe that Hurricane Harvey occurred less than two months ago.  Given the onslaught of disasters from Irma to Maria to Mexico to Vegas and now the California fires, the devastating Texas hurricane feels like it was ages ago.  Often speaking to our littles about these disasters is a tricky subject.  We don’t want to traumatize our littles, especially when the news is overwhelming for even most bigs. However, we also don’t want to shelter them from the realities of life, or ignore that they may be exposed to the news regardless.

Last week as part of our OrindaCares initiative I spoke at school wide assemblies at all elementary schools in our local district about our efforts to help the victims of Hurricane Harvey.  The goal of the talks was to help the children understand why we were doing our first Helping Hands for Houston project.   We want our students to not only engage in service work, but do it from a place of compassion.  As I prepped for the talks, I journeyed into my own heart. 

I realized that I had buried memories of myself experiencing a hurricane in Houston as an elementary school child.  It was Hurricane Alicia in 1983.  I was very young and I recall sitting in our living room and feeling very scared.  I remember that our front door was locked with a deadbolt, but flew open because the winds were so strong.  I remember feeling worried because when we went to the grocery store the shelves were completely cleared out.  My family didn’t have to evacuate or experience the devastation that so many hurricane victims have faced.   But resurfacing these buried memories, I realized that as we try to help Houston or other areas, and as we teach our children about our work that it’s not just about raising money or giving supplies.  It’s also about tuning into what the victims may be feeling- the raw emotions associated with a natural disaster- being scared, worried, anxious, sad, angry.  Only then can we help with true compassion.  

Translating this into a relatable message for children was key for how children could connect the dots.  Instead of focusing on the “big scary storm,” I instead focused on a message of resiliency.

  1. Sometimes things don’t go exactly as we plan:  We fall down and get hurt.  We lose valuables.  Big storms can happen but little storms can as well.  This is one of the truths of life that every single one of us will experience.
  2. Tuning into the unpleasant emotions:  While we won’t know exactly how it feels to experience a natural disaster unless we are in it, we all have had unpleasant feelings.  We have all felt scared or worried or sad or angry when things are hard.  Depending on the situation, these feelings can be strong and last for some time, and other times less so.  As we teach our littles about service, we not only need to help our littles empathize with these emotions but also recognize what helps them feel better during these hard moments.
  3. Being kind to ourselves:  Speaking to our littles about the importance of being kind to ourselves during difficult times is crucial with resiliency- that it’s okay to let ourselves feel the negative emotions without judgment;  that it’s okay to give ourselves the time and space to just be; and that it’s important to notice the aspects of our life that we can be grateful for- i.e., Sheryl Sandberg’s Option B when Option A is not available.
  4. Becoming a helper:  Fred Rogers said “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”  The silver lining of all natural disasters is how the community rallies to help.  There’s countless examples of bigs and littles pulling together in incredible ways to come and help those in need. Sharing stories of how kids all around the country and the world help one another can inspire our littles to know that they too can become a helper and make a difference.  They can see that when bad things happen, they can become the good, the heroes, to help turn it around.

If we can help our littles lead with their hearts, to help give back with compassion, then the energy they cultivate in their service work will be felt on the other end.  Our littles will also be able to withstand experiencing or learning of disasters, however big or small, with calmness, resiliency and love.