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After Sandy: Helping Children and Families Feel Safe as We Recover from the Storm

by Emily Becker-Weidman, PhD and Adam Douglass Brown, PsyD

Mother Comforting Child on Bed

Families were impacted by Hurricane Sandy to varying degrees, from kids missing a week of school to families being displaced from homes. As all families work to regain some sense of normalcy, both kids and parents may be noticing a range of effects on their sense of well-being. However temporary or long lasting changes in your day-to-day routines prove to be, both children and caregivers may need extra support during this time.

With this in mind, experts at the Child Study Center have put together some advice that holds for all families who were affected. The first section outlines steps parents can take to ensure they have the emotional resources to provide much needed support to children. The second section talks about what to look for in children whose lives have been impacted by the storm, and how caregivers can respond. Lastly, we provide suggestions for teachers.

Support for Caregivers in the wake of Sandy

An extreme weather event can have a significant impact on children, but it is important not to overlook the impact on caregivers as well. At times like this, it is especially crucial to remember that if we are not taking good care of ourselves, we will not be able to take care of others, including our children. Self care in trying times is often overlooked, but it is of vital importance. With time, many things will likely return to normal. However, there are a number of steps you can take to help restore emotional well-being and a sense of control immediately following a natural disaster.

Steps parents and caregivers can take include the following:

1. Give yourself time to adjust. Accept that this will be a difficult time in your life. Be aware of your feelings, by talking with others, keeping a journal, or just checking in with yourself. Allow yourself to mourn the losses you have experienced. Try to be patient with changes in your life.

2. As much as possible, stay connected to family and friends. Ask for support from people who care about you and who will listen and empathize with your situation. Talk about feelings, rather than facts and issues like when the power will be restored or kids will be able to return to their regular school. Work to overcome any impulses toward isolation.

3. Find out about local support groups that may be available for those affected by natural disasters. These can be especially helpful for people with limited personal support systems. Try to find groups led by appropriately trained and experienced professionals such as psychologists. Group discussion can help people realize that other individuals in the same circumstances often have similar reactions and emotions.

4. Engage in healthy behaviors to enhance your ability to cope with excessive stress. Try to eat well-balanced meals and get plenty of rest. If you experience ongoing difficulties with sleep, you may be able to find some relief through relaxation techniques. Avoid alcohol and drugs because they can suppress your feelings rather than help you to manage and lessen your distress. In addition, alcohol and drugs may ultimately intensify your emotional or physical pain.

5. Reestablish  or create new routines such as eating meals at regular times and following an exercise program. This can be especially important when the normal routines of daily life are disrupted. Even if you are in a shelter and unable to return home, establish routines that can bring comfort.

6. Give yourself a break. Take some time off from the demands of daily life by pursuing hobbies or other enjoyable activities. While routines are important, acknowledge that you may not be able to recreate life-as-usual. It's okay to cancel normal activities if travel is too difficult, for example.
7. Depending on how severely you were affected, it may be best to put off making major life decisions, such as taking on major new projects at work, changing careers, or moving across the country. In these situations, give yourself some time.

8. Be proactive about seeking the information you need, for instance, local safety measures, emergency aid, schools, and housing. This will also help you regain a sense of control.

9. Help those you can. Helping others, even during your own time of distress, can give you a sense of control and can make you feel better about yourself.

Support for Children after Sandy

For children, sudden disasters like hurricanes can create anxiety and fear; events like these threaten our everyday sense of normalcy and safety. Children may see their usually confident parents and caregivers become anxious and fearful. They may lose their homes, beloved pets, and toys. They may see frightening images, such as collapsed or damaged buildings—including their schools or familiar community landmarks. They may see severely injured people or have friends or family members who were hurt or even killed.  

Even after the hurricane, children may frequently be reminded of the frightening events they experienced, during which they may suddenly re-experience all the emotions, fears, and thoughts they went through during  the storm. Typical reminders include hurricane warnings, the sudden onset of dark clouds, lightning, heavy rains, and strong winds, as well as the activities associated with preparing for a hurricane. These reminders could be more subtle as well, such as passing by a building that has been damaged, hearing any weather report (even if it is not a storm), or perceiving that adults around them are worried or upset.  

It is not unusual for children to become upset in response to a frightening weather event such as a hurricane, and in most circumstances, it is enough for caregivers to offer support and reassurance. It is when a child's distress is long lasting, and interferes with their daily functioning, that they may need more than a little extra attention from caregivers.

Acute distress may manifest itself in a variety of ways, including:

  • Experiencing nightmares or fear of going to sleep
  • Unusual outbursts or tantrums
  • Withdrawing and becoming more solitary
  • Lack of interest in usual activities; changes in sleep pattern; changes in appetite
  • Trouble concentrating and paying attention
  • Returning to earlier behaviors, such as baby talk or bedwetting  
  • Being more clingy and needy than usual
  • Difficulty separating from caregivers

Children's functioning and recovery will be strongly influenced by how their parents and caregivers cope during and after the hurricane. Children often turn to adults for information, comfort, and help. Children do best when parents and teachers remain (or at least appear) calm, answer children's questions honestly, and respond as best they can to requests.

The most helpful response will vary depending on a number of factors, such as the child's developmental level, personality and coping style, and the specifics of the situation and the family in question. For example, for a displaced family, it might be helpful in some cases to visit a destroyed home, to take pictures, or try to recover a significant object, in order to help with closure and processing the event. For another child, those same activities might lead to overwhelming feelings, and might not be the best steps to take. It is important to know yourself and your child, and to seek professional advice—from a school or community mental health counselor, or other mental health professional—if you are not sure.

There are a number of general steps, however, that parents and other caregivers can take to help children, including the following:

1. Reassure children they are safe and that trustworthy people are in control. Parents are important role models. Your reactions and responses to traumatic events will affect how your child deals with those same events. It is okay to let your child know you are sad or hurt by something. In this way, you act as a role model and let them know that it is healthy and normal to have emotional reactions. It is important, though, that they see you as in control and that you convey an overall sense of security and stability, at least when you are around them.

2. Spend more time with children and let them be more dependent on you during the months following the trauma—for example, by allowing your child to cling to you more often than usual. Physical affection is very comforting to children who have experienced upsetting events.

3. Give extra support at times of transition, such as bedtime, or going to school, as children may be more anxious when separating from parents. Spend a little more time than usual talking, cuddling, or reading. Start the bedtime routine earlier so children get the sleep they need. If younger children need to sleep with you, let them know it is a temporary plan, and that soon they will go back to sleeping in their own beds.

4. Play with your child to help relieve tension. Younger children in particular may find it easier to share their ideas and feelings about the event through nonverbal activities such as drawing. Suggest that your child draw a picture of her feelings or use a doll or animal to talk to you about what happened. Listen to your child's description of the event and talk to her in a calm, loving way. The coloring book "Trinka and Sam: The Rainy Windy Day," developed by the National Child Traumatic Stress Network's Early Trauma Treatment Network, can help children begin to talk about the feelings and worries they may have after a hurricane.

5. Calm worries about their friends' safety. Even though phones may not be working, reassure your children that their friends' parents are taking care of them, just the way you are taking care of your children.

6. Tell children about community recovery. Reassure them that the government is working hard to restore electricity, phones, water, and gas. Tell them that the city will be removing debris and helping families find housing.

7. Be available and encourage older children to share their thoughts and feelings with you, and ask questions. This helps reduce their confusion and anxiety related to the trauma. Respond to questions in terms they can comprehend. Realize that children's concerns may be very different than those of adults, so be sure to ask them what they are concerned about. Help them understand that while storms are common, Sandy was a particularly devastating storm and that other bad weather that may occur in the future is unlikely to cause as many problems.

8. Keep regular schedules for activities such as eating, playing and going to bed to help restore a sense of security and normalcy, even if your family has been relocated to a shelter or other temporary housing. If routines need to change due to circumstance, create new routines and rituals, such as having breakfast picnic style on the floor, or playing shadow games with flashlights at night, to create structure and try to introduce a sense of fun and family togetherness.

9. Maintain expectations. Stick to your family rules about good behavior and respect for others. Continue family chores, adapting them to meet new circumstances if necessary, but keep in mind that children may need more reminding than usual.

10. Provide safe opportunities for children to help others—helping others provides a sense of control and efficacy, and can help children feel better about themselves.

11. Help children find ways to relax and calm themselves. For children, playing can naturally reduce stress. Many children also find that exercise, listening to music, or taking a warm bath helps them to relax. Other approaches can include deep breathing or focusing on pleasant images or thoughts.

12. Limit exposure to upsetting images on the news. Repeatedly watching broadcasts of the disaster can prolong or re-trigger feelings of worry or distress.

13. Monitor adult conversations. Be aware of what adults are saying about the hurricane or the damage. Children listen to adults' conversations and may misinterpret what they hear, becoming unnecessarily frightened.

What teachers can do to help students after Sandy:

1. Plan shorter lessons, go at a slower pace, give less homework than usual, and expect a decline in performance for a short time.

2. Identify students whose lives were severely impacted by the hurricane, particularly those who suffered losses or have been displaced, as they are at increased risk for distress.

3. Monitor conversations you and your colleagues have about the hurricane around students, as you may share perceptions, feelings, and memories in ways that make children feel more anxious.

4. Encourage distressed students to meet with the school counselors

5. Stay in touch with your students' parents or caregivers about academic performance and behavior, especially if you notice pronounced changes following the storm.

6. Be aware that some children may have difficulty separating from parents, and may need more support and reassurance at transition times, and throughout the day.

It is important to remember there is no one standard response to traumatic events. Children will react and recover on their own timetable. However, continual and aggressive emotional outbursts, serious problems at school, preoccupation with the traumatic event, continued withdrawal, and other signs of serious anxiety or emotional difficulties suggest the need for professional assistance.

Seek professional help if your child is still experiencing difficulties more than six weeks after the hurricane. A qualified mental health professional can help children understand and deal with thoughts, feelings and behaviors that result from trauma.