Helping children with trauma from tornado

An issue that I get asked about since the tornado of July 19 is how to help children deal with this event that has occurred in their lives. As a mental health professional, who has headed the children’s services at Center Associates in the past, I have had a good deal of experience working with children who have experienced traumatic events.

Early intervention into symptoms following trauma often lessen the impact of trauma. It is also important to remember that the way adults handle trauma will model (impact) how children react. I also encourage parents whose children are experiencing considerable reactions to the tornado to seek the services of a mental health professional. If you need assistance, please call our local community mental health center at 641-752-1585.

Regarding how adults respond to trauma, parents should include children as much as possible as they cope with what has occurred. It is acceptable to demonstrate sadness about what has occurred as long as it is accompanied with good decision making. It is important the children see their parents and other adults being resilient as they cope with losses and rebuilding.

Whether it is your religious faith or not, the powerful psychological benefit of telling Jesus’ story or others in the Bible can certainly help express feelings and ideas. That’s why I often encourage development of a story to help children cope with trauma. Anyone who has read to a small child knows there is no limit to the number of times that a favorite book is read. Developing a story that focuses on the positives of coping with a disaster, such as the July 19 tornado, can help children through the telling and retelling.

I once worked with a child care center where one of the parents died, the child care director developed the story for the children about what happened and I came and read it to them. It became a favorite and helped them experience the loss in a way that they understood.

As soon as a child can return to regular routines, the better. Sleep is often interrupted and so as soon as the child can sleep in her/his own bed and keep with a regular routine the better her/his coping will be.

In 1993, my daughter was 4 and Marshalltown went through horrible flooding. I almost cried one evening when I was putting her to bed and the rains started. She said, “Daddy, I don’t like the rain anymore.” We started playing the “don’t move” game at bedtime. I would lie on the floor by her bed and she would be in her bed. The first person to move after starting the game lost. As a side note, the night before she started kindergarten, I suggested we play the “don’t move” game and she responded with, “Daddy, I have kindergarten tomorrow and I can’t be playing games.”

Use these opportunities to improve problem solving skills. Marshalltown Schools used to (and probably still does) worked with children on the concepts of “understand, make a plan, look back.” We have been fortunate to not have had deaths occur in the tornado. Much of which has to do with an emergency management plan that involved understanding, making plans and now looking back.

It’s important not to dwell so much on what could have happened and focus more on how to prevent bad things from happening when disasters occur.

An aspect of work with children is called “age appropriate expectations.” A traumatic event like the tornado can often cause adults to have expectations of children beyond what they have at their age. Secondary wounding is when the person is wounded all over again after a trauma. As a mental health professional, I’ve observed that often secondary wounding has more of an impact that the original trauma. Shifting the focus to more of “what can we do better” will help eliminate secondary wounding.

Several years ago, I participated in a week of building trails on the Ozark Trail. People came from all over the country to help. One day on a canoe trip, a wonderful older couple from Minnesota capsized. When I caught up with them, I said, “Mary, are you okay?” “Oh Mark,” she replied, “These are the things memories are made of.” I’d rather have memories made of positive occurrences in life, but it’s my hope that these events will create memories of how you, as a family, came together, showed love for one another and supported each other.

Finally, keep in mind parenting is such an important job that no one can do it without making some mistakes. Keep ideas from others and obtain different approaches to dealing with what has been a significant issue in your life as well as the lives of your children.


Rep. Mark Smith (D-Marshalltown) serves the 71st District in the Iowa House and is the Iowa House Democratic Leader.


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