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Parenting Through Disaster: Tips From a Mom Who Did It

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The Valley Fire swept through the Spezzas' rural community of Middletown in Lake County in September 2015, destroying 1,300 homes -- including their own. Shown here are mom Carolynn, daughters Vienna (left) and Lucia, and dad Joe. The family purchased a home in Middletown one year after the fire. "We were too exhausted from the insurance process to rebuild," Carolynn Spezza said. (Courtesy of Carolynn Spezza)

This post was originally published in 2017, and therefore doesn't include COVID-19 safety or social distancing guidance. Please be sure to follow the advice below in a way that keeps your loved ones safe during the pandemic.

First, I am so sorry. As a mother who lost a home two years ago and is currently experiencing the Tubbs Fire, I get it. Surviving an emotional, logistical nightmare may be hard, but navigating a nightmare while simultaneously nurturing children through it is even harder. This is exhausting work.

Below are a few things that helped our family survive wildfire evacuation and home loss. I hope a few may be useful in caring for your hurting children ... because, truly, the last thing you need right now or a few months from now are children that are completely falling apart. Or worse: shutting down emotionally.

A. Create opportunities for a sense of control and “container”

1. Keep individually packaged snacks and drinks in your trunk. These are useful in giving children a small sense of control over their chaotic world, as well as in keeping blood sugar level when you need a few more minutes at a store or in a meeting.


2. Find a way to create a small space a child can retreat within and keep their few belongings. For instance, create a soft, blanketed space under a shelter cot or consider purchasing a pop-up tent designed for play or to fit over a twin bed. These spaces are particularly vital for children with sensitive nervous systems. Blanketed spaces can also be created in a hotel room under a table or in a closet.

3. Purchase card games or board games to play as a family. Games like Uno and Go Fish can be stored in a glove compartment or purse ... and require little brainpower for exhausted parents. Games can create a “container of family” at a restaurant, shelter, hotel or sparsely furnished home. If used regularly, games can also create a sense of routine for children overwhelmed by the sudden disorder in their lives.

The Valley Fire swept through the Spezzas' rural community of Middletown in Lake County in September 2015, destroying 1,300 homes -- including their own. Joe Spezza and his daughters, Vienna (left), and Lucia, are gathered at the family's former home. (Courtesy of Carolynn Spezza)

B. Create meaning

1. During mealtime, tell stories from your childhood about when you overcame hardship. This communicates to children your family’s legacy of being overcomers. It also communicates your firm belief that they will survive this experience.

2. Highlight the helpers. Routinely begin conversations about the people helping your family and your community. Explain how when bad things happen in life we talk about the hardship, but we also focus on the beauty of kindness and love that flows in to surround that hardship.

3. Give kids vocabulary to express the feelings in their bodies. Use words such as tight, tense, confused, trapped, sad, angry and worried. Also emphasize empowering words such as tenacity, family, community and kindness. Language centers of the brain can go off-line during trauma, yet we need them to make sense of our experience to guard against potential long-term effects from trauma.

The Valley Fire swept through the Spezzas' rural community of Middletown in Lake County in September 2015, destroying 1,300 homes -- including their own. Pictured here is Vienna at the site of the family's former home. (Courtesy of Carolynn Spezza)

C. Show children how healthy adults handle trauma

1. If two parents are available, take turns being with the children. Commit to the parent who is with the children to being off his/her phone as much as logistically possible.

2. If friends and family are offering to help, work with your children to create a list of ways people can support you. Include a short list of your child’s favorite books, meals or outings (if relevant). In doing this together, you are modeling how to proactively turn to relationships and receive kindness during times of stress.

3. Move your body and get your kids moving theirs. Bodies pump out stress hormones during trauma to make extra movement possible. Movement is both helpful and critical during stress to ensure stress hormones do not damage the body. If opportunities for large movement activities such as swimming are restricted, be a fierce leader and spearhead games of running down hallways, seeing who can run in a circle the longest, bear crawls, hopping on one/two feet, or wiggling toes to work out stress. Hopscotch and flat “obstacle” courses can be created using sidewalk chalk, tape, pillows and towels. (I know: Playing with kids may feel like the LAST thing you want to do right now. But time spent moving and playing with your kids will pay dividends in the long haul. Fake it till you make it.)

D. Take care of your body

1. Challenge yourself to turn away from screens and toward people.

2. Eat vegetables, protein and whole grains. You need your body to feel as agile as possible right now.

3. Stay away from things that will decrease time in “deep sleep.” Most importantly: (a) avoid caffeine after lunch, (b) turn off your phone at least one hour before bedtime, and (c) minimize alcohol. Your kids will need you tomorrow and need you to rest. You may technically sleep for a few hours after caffeine, screens and alcohol, but it will not be the deep sleep that rejuvenates your brain. If sleep seems impossible, try focusing your mind on slowly repeating the lines of a favorite verse, poem or calming statement. When you awake in the middle of the night, quickly focus on the words of your simple, calming verse or sentence. (Your mind will drift. Just keep trying.) Again, your children need you to sleep.

*The Magic of Caring, Responsive Adults

A growing body of research indicates the No. 1 “protective factor” for resilient children is the presence of caring, responsive adults. During the coming months, you will likely hear adults flippantly minimize children’s experience of powerlessness and chaos with, “Oh, children are resilient.” Please remember, children possess immature nervous systems and need adults to guide them in establishing a sense of stability and in developing healthy coping mechanisms. Wrapping a sense of safety, control and the opportunity to express emotions is critical to ensuring that, in the long term, children will indeed be resilient.

Giving children time feels daunting when there are phone calls to return, news to catch up on ... and the problem of figuring out how to feed kids their next meal. Consider reminding yourself, “This is what mammals do. We work endlessly for the sake of our kids. I’ve got this.”

Lucia (left) and Vienna Spezza at the site of the family's former home in Middletown in Lake County. (Courtesy of Gina Tassinari)

Parenting children in a caring, responsive way while scrambling to survive is a steep mountain to climb. If you find yourself in a position of parenting in the midst of not just evacuation, but also losing your home and rebuilding your life in the wake of a wildfire, your task is even steeper. Perfection is not required, nor is it possible during this time. Instead, consider creating a mental list of three things you can do for your child each day to provide the container of love, stability and “being seen.” According to research, just holding children while listening to them talk or cry can be the most valuable gift of all.

Our family offers tender wishes of grace during this most difficult time.

Carolynn Spezza

P.S. My younger daughter just reminded me that among the most helpful things we did for her during the Valley Fire was to let her choose a notebook and pencil to have as her very own. With all my exhausting work and failures during that time, it feels curious that a $2 notebook is what stuck with her the most.

(NOTE: The Spezzas had to temporarily evacuate their home on Oct. 11, 2017, due to the Tubbs Fire but were later able to return.)

Now, as the smoke outside the window is getting thicker and my children are waiting for attention, I am not allocating time to add references to a few items above. Please forgive me. Most ideas come from my years as a social worker, research associate in youth development, and perhaps most useful, my years as a mama.

Spezza contributed this piece in response to a callout from KQED seeking advice from wildfire survivors to those currently experiencing the California blazes. One year after losing their home, they bought a house in Middletown: "We were too exhausted from the insurance process to rebuild," Spezza said.

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