What do I say to my 4-year-old about our house in New Orleans?

We got out alive, and we're OK, but I don't know how to explain to my daughter.

Published September 15, 2005 6:25PM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

My family is from New Orleans.

The good news: We left early, before the storm. We never were in personal danger, and all of my family is safe. We have been in hotels or with family. We have been fed and are physically comfortable.

The bad news: Our house has seven feet of water in it, and everything my husband and I and our children owned is ruined. My daughter's new school she was so excited to start is ruined. Our friends and family are dispersed around the country.

My eldest daughter is almost 4. She is bright, precocious and very sensitive. We have shielded her from the gruesome reality of this tragedy as best we can. I am trying to be upbeat during her waking hours. Currently, we are visiting her grandparents in Colorado.

In one or two weeks, we will visit her "New Orleans grandparents" (not at their normal home), then drive to Florida, where my husband will work and we will live in a rented, but empty, house.

This is my question: What do I tell my daughter? We always told her she was safe in her "big, pink house" from everything from "strangers" to thunderstorms. How do we tell her the truth without frightening her? She will never see her special toys again, or her new school. Her life is changing and we have to explain it somehow.

Any advice or resources would be appreciated. The sooner the better. I know this isn't typically your subject area, but I don't know where to turn.

Flooded-Out Mom

Dear Flooded-Out Mom,

When I imagine your situation, I imagine that I would tell a story.

I would tell the story of Katrina from beginning to end, beginning with the storm forming over the water, and hearing about it on the TV, and knowing that it was very big and you needed to get out of its way, and so packing up and driving away so the hurricane couldn't hurt you, and then, once you were far away and safe, looking back and seeing that the hurricane really was so big that everything got wet. Everything. Everything got so wet, in fact, that it will take a long, long time to dry out. And you wouldn't want to live in a house that's all wet. So you're going to live where it's dry. And meanwhile, while you're waiting for things to dry out at home -- and who knows how long that will take -- you're going to do everything you normally do. You're going to go to school, and Daddy is going to go to work, and all the things you usually do you're going to do here. And you're going to be safe, just like you were in the big, pink house.

The clouds will be the same, and the rain will be the same, and the dirt and the air will be the same, and you and Daddy will be the same, and the water in the faucet will be the same, and the water in the bathtub will be the same, and the food will be mostly the same, although some of it may taste a little different. You will do things at the same time you did before. You might wear different clothes, but you will button them up the same way. You might sit on different chairs, but you'll sit on them the same way. Some things will be different, but most things will be the same.

But what happened to the things in the house? she might ask.
They got all wet too.
And won't they dry out?
Some of them will dry out. But some of them got too wet and dirty. They can't dry out.
Why can't they dry out?
Because the hurricane was too big.
Why can't we go back there?
Because it's too wet to go back there.
I want to go back there. I want to go home.
I want to go home too. Wouldn't it be nice if we could go home?
Yes. I want to go home.
OK, let's pretend that we're home. Have we mowed the lawn? We'd better mow the lawn. Have we cleaned the windows? We'd better clean the windows. Have we cooked dinner? We'd better cook dinner.

I imagine that if you can participate in your child's world, you can get through this together. You will of course see it differently. The child, after all, is not concerned about "New Orleans." The child is concerned about the pink house. The ideas of "New Orleans" and "disaster," the idea of how catastrophic a loss is the destruction of an entire city, a way of life, a culture -- these are adult ideas, and the sadness is an adult sadness. Not only would it be perhaps too much for a child to bear, but it is, mercifully, also too much for a child to conceive. So I doubt your daughter is thinking about the historic loss. She's probably thinking about things much closer to home. Where is that special toy? Remember that special toys do go in and out of a child's life, and children construct reasons for why toys come and go. Some, of course, disappear in upsetting ways. But kids come up with reasons to satisfy them.

Thinking of all the people whose children will be affected by this storm, I bought a book called "Trauma in the Lives of Children," by Kendall Johnson, Ph.D. In it the wise and compassionate author lists some things that children your daughter's age may do in the months after a trauma, as reactions to the trauma, or ways of adjusting, trying to fit the trauma into their world. It's important to note that your child may not have been traumatized at all. Still, it seems prudent to watch carefully for signs that she is trying, in her 4-year-old way, to deal with overwhelming, threatening, strange and catastrophic events, or that she has suffered some kind of trauma because of the disruption of her life and the images she has seen on television. Here are the behaviors Johnson suggests are most common in traumatized children her age:

  • Withdrawal. Perhaps because at this age children's "cognitive discriminatory process are newly emergent," they cannot feel safe from harm, so they withdraw.
  • Denial. This may take many forms, he says, making it "difficult for adults to discern when the child is denying, not remembering, or confusing facts."
  • Thematic play. Play, Johnson reminds us, is the medium children use "to incorporate new ideas, realities and feelings into their existing world." So you might find certain themes being expressed in your child's play.
  • Anxious attachment. Since this is the stage of childhood during which attachment behavior occurs, Johnson says, trauma may influence the form it takes; there may be whining, clinging, not letting go of parents or favorite objects.
  • Specific fears. "Common specific fears," Johnson says, "include fear of new situations, strangers, males, confinement, violence, or certain objects." He also notes that problems with sleep may occur. "Fear of going to sleep, nightmares, and frequent waking at night often develop because the cognitive dreamwork involves trauma-specific content or content having to do with loss brought about by changed circumstances."
  • Regression. Finally, Johnson points out that children under severe stress attempt to master the situation and find their comfort zone by reverting to behavior patterns that were successful in earlier developmental stages.
  • So I would suggest that as you go through this experience together, as a surviving family, you stick to your story: You are a family who heeded the warnings, and had the resources to get out and the loving extended family around the country in Florida and Colorado to take care of you. As you live through the aftermath, watch for the behavior in your 4-year-old that Johnson describes, and do not be afraid to consult a professional if the behavior alarms you.

    I am simply a writer with a strong interest in how humans get through difficult problems. I have no clinical training. I believe that telling stories can help with healing and psychological integration. But sometimes I think that's just because I'm a writer and I like stories. So imagine my delight when Johnson described a pediatrician in Berkeley, Calif., named Joan Lovett who uses a combination of eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) and narrative in her work with traumatized children and their parents.

    Interestingly enough, says Johnson, Dr. Lovett "invites the parents to write a story for their child, instructing them to start the story by describing the child as safe and loved, and then the events leading up to the traumatic incident, the critical incident itself and its aftermath, and ending with the resolution of the trauma." And then -- this is really interesting, and kind of wild -- "while the parents read the story to their child, Lovett uses EMDR techniques to desensitize and reprocess the scary parts of the story. This storytelling approach is especially helpful for children who are younger than 6 and for older children who were traumatized before the age of 6," he says.

    Fascinating, huh?

    Good luck. You survived. Now you've got a story to tell.

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