Dr. Jennifer Bremer's Blog

a psychiatrist mom rambles

tornado

How is a Mom to wake up to the news this morning and not go raving mad and quit her job and grab onto her children with both arms and hold them endlessly?  Those hapless tornado victims and families in Moore, Oklahoma and in the Plaza Towers Elementary School who took a dead-on direct hit.  How could this happen?

By chance, this morning my 12 year old heads off on a school camping trip with an unacceptable 100% chance of thunderstorms in the forecast today which of course only decreases to 60% tomorrow and even the next day.   What are the chances of such a dismal outlook?  I obsessively scan the weather report for tornadoes.  How can we let our children go off into a storm?  How do we let our children go off and be children?  And, how do we help them to do so?


This morning, I try to ignore the nor-adrenergic rush as the camp bus pulls out.  Forget the palpitations, the tears or the rising nausea.  Intellectually I know that the symptoms are not a response to actual danger but are based on anxiety.  A blessing and burden of humans is our skill to imagine the future as well as future harm.  Such abilities help us to be effective creatures but also sometimes terribly anxious ones.


So how do we move on in the face of that anxiety?  The first step is not to fend off or hide from the worries.  Dodging negative emotions causes more damage to more people than just about any other human behavior.  For example, a quarter of our population suffers from drug and alcohol abuse, I think largely for this reason.  I try to follow my own advice and to let the emotions pass through me.  Admittedly, this step is sheer torture.


The second step is behaviorally to take advantage of the anxiety.  That evil anxiety actually offers up decent information.  Often, anxiety offers a nudge to act.   I reflect on how I can increase my little girl's safety.  Thus the investment in a seriously upgraded rain coat last night and the packing of extra food and water.  While never pleasant and while adding to the backpack's weight remarkably, anxiety can be useful.


The third step is to reality test worries.  I try, although admittedly images of the bus flipping and spinning in hurricane-force (or tornado-force but I fear even writing that without parentheses) winds keep whirling through my mind.  But spring thunderstorms completely are the norm so the camp knows what to do.  A thunderstorm is not a tornado hitting an elementary school;  that inconceivable horror won't happen again in a lifetime, odds are.


And, finally, a key step is to talk it out.  Fill kids in, albeit gently.  Otherwise, they will glimpse bloody images on TV or overhear inklings of horrific news at school, which in their little minds will multiply and grow and in a dim and murky way be even more terrifying than the truth.   Keeping kids in the dark is incredibly appealing to mothers like me who just want to hide childhood away in a happy safe cocoon, but unfortunately this approach just isn't realistic.  Consistent careful truth across the board tends to work far better.


Children are such information sponges that we have little choice but to fill them in.  If I dole out this morning's Rice Krispies with a somber expression on and without providing information, the kids would misinterpret my look and take it personally.  Kids are egocentric, after all.  And, then inevitably a whole host of misunderstandings would follow, often resulting  in mayhem.


So, this morning I will take a deep breath.  I will tell my children that a dreadful tornado touched down in a state far away; people were hurt; and it makes my heart bleed.  My older kids will need more details.   I will make clear that odds are a tornado like this one will not happen again any time soon.  And, Oklahoma is a long, long way from here.  And, I will review the steps we can take to increase safety.  I will mention where the first-aid kit is and to call 9-1-1 in an emergency.


Still, my heart sinks reflecting on realistically how powerless we all are against 200 mile per hour winds. Such winds are four times as strong as those I've seen make majestic oaks lean and sway terrifyingly.  I simply can not imagine the horror.  My prayers goes out to Oklahoma.


Yet, nonetheless, my daughter is on the bus to camp.   The anxiety passes through me.  I have done what I can do.   I will not keep my children forever wrapped in my arms, as much as I long to.



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