A Return to Routine: Helping Children Cope with Hurricane Sandy

By eMedical Urgent Care

kid looking out windowThe wind has died down and the flood waters have receded, but for many communities, the cleanup process after Hurricane Sandy has just begun. The hurricane impacted nearly every region of the state. While adults focus on getting back to work and getting their children back to school, it’s important to understand what your child may be feeling – and how to help him or her express those feelings and heal.

Natural disasters can be especially traumatic for children. Hurricanes can be frightening even for adults, and the devastation to the home and community can be long lasting and distressing. When an entire community is impacted, a child’s sense of security and normalcy can suffer. These factors present a variety of unique issues and challenges, including issues associated with having to relocate when home and/or community have been destroyed.

Children look to the adults in their lives for guidance. Parents, teachers and other caregivers can help children and teens cope in the aftermath of a natural disaster by remaining calm and reassuring children that they will be all right.
Possible Reactions of Children and Youth to Natural Disasters
Each child’s reaction to the hurricane and its destruction will vary. The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) recommends that you contact a professional if your child exhibits significant changes in behavior or any of the following symptoms over an extended period of time.

  • Preschoolers: Thumb sucking, bedwetting, clinging to parents, sleep disturbances, loss of appetite, fear of the dark, regression in behavior, and withdrawal from friends and routines
  • Elementary School Children: Irritability, aggressiveness, clinginess, nightmares, school avoidance, poor concentration, and withdrawal from activities and friends
  • Adolescents: Sleeping and eating disturbances, agitation, increase in conflicts, physical complaints, delinquent behavior, and poor concentration

A minority of children may be at risk of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Symptoms can include those listed above as well as re-experiencing the disaster during play and/or dreams; anticipating or feeling that the disaster is happening again; avoiding reminders of the disaster; general numbness to emotional topics; and inability to concentrate and startle reactions.

Tips for Returning to Routine
The National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN) offers the following tips:

  • Hold your child or let him or her stay close to you.
  • Keep him or her away from frightening TV images and scary conversations.
  • Do familiar things, like singing a song you both like or telling a story.
  • Let him know what will happen next (to the degree that you know).
  • Have a predictable routine, at least for bedtime: a story, a prayer, cuddle time.
  • Leave her with familiar people when you have to be away.
  • Tell him where you are going and when you will come back.
  • Help your child name how she feels: “scared,” “happy,” “angry,” “sad.” Tell her it’s OK to feel that way.
  • Show your child the right way to behave, like saying “It’s OK to be angry but it’s not OK to hit me.”
  • Help your child express anger in ways that won’t hurt, using words, play, or drawings.
  • Talk about the things that are going well to help you and your child feel good.
  • Listen to your child and watch his behavior to figure out what he needs.
  • Enable your child to tell the story of what happened during and after the hurricane.
  • Join your child in showing and telling not only what happened, step by step, but also how you both felt. As you tell the story, follow your child’s lead. When the story is difficult, your young child may need breaks: running around, being held, playing something else. This is OK. He will come back to the story when he is ready.
  • If you belong to a group, like a church, try to find ways of reconnecting with them.
  • It is common for children to be clingy and worried about being away from you.
  • If you need to leave your child, let her know for how long and when you are coming back. If possible, leave something that belongs to you, or a picture that your child can have.

Take time for yourself and try to deal with your own reactions to the situation as fully as possible. You will be better able to help your children if you are coping well. If you are anxious or upset, your children are more likely to feel the same way. Talk to other adults such as family, friends, faith leaders, or counselors. Sharing feelings with others often makes people feel more connected and secure. Take care of your physical health. Make time, however small, to do things you enjoy. Avoid using drugs or alcohol to feel better.

If You Had to Relocate
The need to relocate after a disaster creates unique coping challenges. It may contribute to the social, environmental and psychological stress experienced by children and their families. The NASP recommends that parents and other caregivers:

  • Provide opportunities for children to see friends.
  • Bring personal items that the child values when staying in temporary housing.
  • Establish some daily routines so that the child is able to have a sense of what to expect post-hurricane.
  • Be sensitive to the disruption that relocation may cause and be responsive to the child’s needs.
  • Consider the developmental level and unique experiences of each child; it is important to remember that as children vary, so will their responses to the disruption of relocation.

eMedical Urgent Care can provide referrals to behavioral health specialists for both you and your child. For more information, visit our website.

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