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May 21 2013

How Parents Can Cope with a Tragedy Like the Oklahoma Tornado

By at 4:26 pm

tornado damageIn the field of social work we use fancy phrases like “caregiver fatigue,” “compassion fatigue,” “secondary traumatic stress,” and “vicarious traumatization.”

They all mean somewhat different things, but they’re all pointing to the same phenomenon: the ways in which doctors, EMTS, social workers, nurses, and increasingly, teachers–anyone who tends to the wounded and traumatized on a regular basis–can, and do, get exhausted and burnt out. They may become depressed or angry, they may turn to alcohol or drugs to manage difficult feelings, and they may have a hard time with sleep, focus, and ability to attend to daily tasks, among other things.

Unfortunately, it seems as though it might be necessary to add a new phrase to the list: “vicarious parental traumatization.” Statistically speaking, most American parents are fortunate enough to not have direct contact with experiences like Newtown, the Boston Marathon, or most recently, the Oklahoma tornadoes, to name only a few of the recent tragedies in which children have been killed. While our experiences may pale in comparison to those of the parents and first responders who come face-to-face with the wounded and dead, we need to acknowledge the ways in which these tragedies have impacted us, and we need to find ways to take care of ourselves.

I can speak for myself. I’m tired and scared and tired of feeling scared. I’m scared of sending my daughters to school, to large public events, and in my more difficult moments, anywhere beyond my front door. I have fantasies about dressing them in Kevlar suits and helmets and homeschooling them in the basement. But then I take a deep breath (or 12) and remember that this is not actually how I want to raise my girls. I want to find ways to support the families affected by the tragedies, to let go of my anxiety, and make choices based on the parent I want to be, rather than the parent I find myself becoming in the aftermath of each of these tragedies.

Here are a few ways we can take care of ourselves and help mitigate the effects of “vicarious parental traumatization.”

1. Turn off the TV. Right now. Don’t turn it back on, and don’t head over to YouTube either. You can get the news you need from the radio, newspaper, or online news sources that don’t include videos. The constant watching and re-watching of videos of tragedies can leave us feeling even more depleted and traumatized than we need to be, and it doesn’t benefit anyone.

2. Take a moment to figure out how you feel, and let yourself feel it. By exploring and experiencing difficult emotions, we can decide what we want to do with them. When we keep them shoved down, they are much more powerful and can impact our behaviors in ways we may not anticipate. You can do this by talking to friends, journaling, or just sitting in silence for a few moments at a time and noticing what arises for you.

3. Get some sleep. Sleep deprivation is linked to increased depression, anxiety, stress, and everything else that makes us feel crazy, sad, and out of control. I know that so many of us parents of young children struggle to get enough sleep even when things are going well, but it needs to be a priority when we’re feeling off kilter.

4. Get some exercise. Exercise decreases stress, helps you sleep, increases your energy, and generally makes you happier. Period.

5. Hang out with your crew. Spend some time with the people who support you, and talk. Talk about the tragedy, talk about your kids, talk about your favorite flavor of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream (chocolate fudge brownie frozen yogurt, for the record). Knowing that you are surrounded by people who care about you and are in this crazy mess of parenting along with you can be incredibly sustaining and reinvigorating.

6. Help someone else. There is nothing quite as empowering in the face of uncontrollable circumstances as helping someone else. It can be as quick as donating money to the Red Cross or other charitable organizations supporting the survivors, or maybe you want to make a more sustained commitment to volunteer for a local agency.

7. Do it anyway. You’re going to be scared to send your kids to school. Do it anyway. You may have doubts about taking them to the circus or a concert. Take them anyway. You’d rather zone out in front of the TV than go for a walk or call a friend. Walk and call anyway. In the wake of a national tragedy, we need to take care of ourselves more than ever.

8. Seek help if you need it. It can feel self-indulgent to feel like you’ve been impacted by a national tragedy if you weren’t directly involved. As a social worker and a mother, I promise that it’s not. Shootings, bombings, and severe weather (among other things) are incredibly scary, and they can affect each of us in unanticipated ways. Don’t be afraid to talk to a social worker or other mental health professionals. If you need help figuring out how to find a therapist, let me know. I’ll help you.

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