Parenting Resource

5 Ways to Support Families with Young Children Displaced by Harvey

Aug 31, 2017

As the devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey continues to unfold, our hearts and minds immediately go to all those affected by the storm – including those families with young children displaced from their home.

Michelmond / Shutterstock

Houston, Texas, August 30, 2017: Another shelter opens at NRG Center as evacuees seek safety in Houston. A flood evacuee holding a small child receives necessary supplies.

Families with infants and toddlers face unique challenges while living in shelters or seeking refuge in the homes of family and friends. Here are five ways you can help comfort and support young children during this difficult time:

1. Care for the Parent

Children need the comfort their parents usually provide now more than ever. It’s difficult for anyone to support others when they are feeling upset, frightened, or overwhelmed, but young children look to their parents and guardians for how to feel and how to respond. If parents are feeling overwhelmed, encourage them to reach out for help. Suggest they reach out and talk to shelter workers, contact their “go-to” people, or take turns watching over children with a trusted adult. Remind parents: You made it to a safe place with your child(ren). You are keeping you and your family safe during a hard time. Explore more ways parents can take care of themselves with our tip sheet.

2. Establish Routines

Predictability makes everyone, especially children, feel safe. During and after a disaster, predictability can be in short supply, especially if families have been displaced from their home. But try to establish routines as much as you can—eat at a set time, then play, then nap, then conduct more active play. Children can sense that things have changed and are different, but falling into familiar routines can provide them—and the whole family—with a sense of familiarity and comfort.

3. Pay Attention to How the Child Acts

Very young children communicate mainly through the way they act or behave, and during times of stress, children may behave differently than they do in day-to-day life. For example, if the child suddenly looks wide-eyed, clings, sucks their thumb, or pretends to sleep, they may be confused or overwhelmed. Giving them a “lovey” or a “snuggly,” and explaining what is happening to them in simple words helps them feel safe and comforted as they try to make sense of what’s going on around them. Use this table to help you understand what babies and toddlers might be communicating through their actions so you can better comfort them.

4. Avoid Judgment

Families with young children are coping with the event just like others without children, but they have an added stressor of meeting the physical and emotional needs of their young ones. This may cause them to feel extra-protective or overwhelmed. Avoiding passing judgment will help families begin to feel safe and comfortable in their new environment, and feel better about reaching out for help. If you find yourself making a judgment, turn it into a statement that begins with “I wonder…” For example, if you find yourself becoming judgmental about a family’s hygiene, you might say, “I wonder if a warm shower might help you relieve some stress.” Explore more ways shelter professionals can support parents of young children here.

5. Be Available, But Don’t Hover

Your approach with a family sets the tone for how receptive they are to receiving help. Let the parents know where they can find you and how often you will try to check in with them. This approach lets them know you are available but are not trying to take over. If you’re helping to care for the children, speak calmly and gently and try to get on their eye level. If the child does not want to talk or play, accept their limits and check back later. If they want to play, but not talk, don’t continue to ask questions. Color or play next to them instead. Explore more ways shelter professionals can support young children here.

There are many feelings swirling around when a family is displaced after a disaster, and it’s important for them to know they are not alone. Explore all of our Shelter from the Storm materials for parents and professionals to learn more about what you can do to support them during this difficult time.