Della McAllister has been asked many questions about family mental health and well-being during the Souris River flooding.
McAllister, clinical psychologist for Trinity Health, found people are anxious to return and see what damage they are up against. They're also concerned about what, and how much, to tell the kids.
"I encourage people to check in with their children as to what they understand about what they're seeing, and what they remember," McAllister said. "There's a balance between not telling them enough information and telling them too much information."
Katina Tengesdal/MDN - - Della McAllister, clinical psychologist for Trinity Health, highlights coping tips to help flood survivors.
"You should answer the questions your child asks, but don't go beyond that," she suggested.
For children around ages 4 to 7, McAllister said, parents should answer questions honestly, but to be aware of what children are overhearing in adult conversations, and their exposure to information they may not fully understand.
"Within that younger age group, if they aren't getting information from you, they will fill in the blanks of what they don't understand with their own imagination, which is usually worse than reality," McAllister said.
Tips for coping with difficulties
- Talk about it. By talking with others about the event, you can relieve stress and realize that others share your feelings.
- Spend time with friends and family. They can help you through this tough time. If your family lives outside the area, stay in touch by phone. If you have any children, encourage them to share their concerns and feelings about the disaster with you.
- Take care of yourself. Get plenty of rest and exercise, and eat properly. If you smoke or drink coffee, try to limit your intake, since nicotine and caffeine can also add to your stress.
- Limit exposure to images of the disaster. Watching or reading news about the event over and over again will only increase your stress.
- Find time for activities you enjoy. Read a book, go for a walk, catch a movie or do something else you find enjoyable. These healthy activities can help you get your mind off the disaster and keep stress in check.
- Take one thing at a time. For people under stress, an ordinary workload can sometimes seem unbearable. Pick one urgent task and work on it. Once you accomplish that task, choose the next one. "Checking off" tasks will give you a sense of accomplishment and make things feel less overwhelming.
- Do something positive. Give blood, prepare "care packages" for people who have lost relatives or their homes or jobs, or volunteer in a rebuilding effort. Helping other people can give you a sense of purpose in a situation that feels out of your control.
- Avoid drugs and excessive drinking. Drugs and alcohol may temporarily seem to remove stress, but in the long run they generally create additional problems that compound the stress you were already feeling.
- Ask for help when you need it. If your feelings do not go away or are so intense they interfere with your ability to function in daily life, talk with a trusted relative, friend, doctor or spiritual advisor about getting help. Make an appointment with a mental health professional to discuss how well you are coping with recent events. You could also join a support group. Don't try to cope alone. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness.
-- Trinity Health
For preteens and adolescents, she said, parents should have open, frank conversations addressing the child's concerns.
"You do tell kids that yes, their house has been affected by water if you know that it has and try to focus on what you are going to do to rebuild," McAllister said. "If you don't tell kids honestly what the situation is, you run the risk that kids will hear something and feel a sense of betrayal if you hadn't told them."
Families should take cues from children as to when to bring up the topic, and they may bring up the topic during usual family conversation times.
"Ask the child what they remember about what they have seen, what they worry most about, and what changes have they noticed about mom or dad," McAllister said. "It gives them permission to talk about their emotions, and it gives parents feedback, too."
"With very young kids, you may see them act out in their play, such as throwing blocks simulating the water rushing through," she said. "Don't be distressed by that. That's OK. (It's) how they process it. You can sit down with them and help with their play, taking it beyond destruction and into repair."
While McAllister encouraged parents to ask their children how they are thinking and feeling, she advised the heavier conversations might not be best had at bed time.
"Night time and bed time is probably going to be more difficult than before. You might hear some kids asking parents to sit with them more," McAllister said. "Use bed time as a time for positive talk, such as talk about the rebuilding aspects, if the topic of the flood comes up."
In addition to talking about children's concerns, McAllister said, parents should take time to establish routines and should take care to maintain the same behavioral expectations and requirements as they did before.
"It will be a balancing act with children, trying to maintain the same expectations and requirements, such as, 'You took the trash out before, and you will take the trash out now,'" McAllister said. "For those living together with other families, try to break away and find some separate time as an individual family unit."
McAllister said parents themselves may find they need professional mental health help later, if they are feeling emotionally numb, find themselves crying excessively, suffering increased irritability, having difficulty making decisions or turning to increased alcohol usage.
"Right now, parents are more focused on immediate needs," McAllister said. "Then later, when there isn't as much distraction, they may have a delayed stress reaction."
"We expect to see more people needing help as we move through the different stages of recovery, particularly when people have a chance to go back," she said.
For all people involved, focusing on being a survivor instead of a victim can help them cope in difficult times.
"We've been referring to flood victims, and changing the terminology to flood survivors," McAllister said. "Changing the term really does start to restructure how you think, and how you identify yourself. It moves you from a state of fear and paralysis to a state of hope, recovery, and moving forward."