(Colleen Powers, L.C.S.W., is an IPG therapist specializing in work with children and families. She contributed to this article but couldn’t write it because she and her own family were flooded out of their home by Hurricane Sandy)
It’s been more than two weeks since Sandy hit, and unless you are very unlucky your power is back, your kids are in school again, and life is beginning to return to normal.
Maybe they are. If so, good for you! One less thing to worry about.
But maybe you are noticing behavior that is out of the ordinary for them. They may be clingy, wetting their bed again, absent minded or acting out at school, or downright aggressive and rebellious. It may not have occurred to you that they are suffering from the emotional trauma of Hurricane Sandy. Many adults are still reacting to ‘Sandy Stress’ and children can still be reacting as well. If your child is actively voicing worries or fears about hurricanes or actually talking about Sandy, the connection is obvious. But if not, you may not see the connection, because kids are even worse than adults at recognizing why they behave the way they do. Your child may exhibit symptoms of traumatic reaction and not be able to tell you – because she doesn’t know herself.
There are a number of ‘typical’ responses to trauma that child exhibit. Here are some of them to look out for:
- Safety fears- about themselves, loved ones, even pets; fear of another hurricane
- Separation anxiety, including ‘clinginess,’ distress at being separated from a parent
- Nightmares, night terrors, the need/desire to sleep with a parent or other loved one
- Somatic complaints – stomachaches, headaches, other physical complaints
- Withdrawal and isolation from peers and/or adults
- Aggression and anger towards peers and/or adults
- Changes in sleep patterns or eating patterns
- Changes in school performance
- Lack of interest in typical activities, including play
- Absent-mindedness, lack of focus, forgetfulness
- Moodiness, frequent mood changes
- REGRESSION to earlier behaviors – talking ‘babytalk,’ thumb-sucking, bedwetting
- For teens – an increase in ‘risky’ behaviors like drinking or substance use
If you notice any of these signs or symptoms in your child, it is important to address them as soon as you can. Most will pass with time, but there are things you as a parent can do to speed things along and to make the healing as painless as possible. Here are some things that might help:
- Kids depend on structure at least as much as adults. So as soon as you can, and to the best of your ability, try to re-establish old routines.
- Give your children lots of reassurance, not just about their safety, but also about your love for them. When children get frightened they may get insecure about attachment as well.
- Limit their exposure to media depictions of the disaster- but also be careful of what you say within their earshot.
- TALK to your children about what happened. Don’t wait for them to bring it up, or assume that if they don’t talk about Sandy it’s not bothering them. Be prepared to talk about it several times – kids need a lot of repetition to process something as scary as a hurricane.
- Validate your childrens’ experience by sharing a little of your own sadness and upset. You don’t want to overwhelm them, but it helps them to know their reactions are ‘normal’ because they may be afraid of what they are feeling.
- Make sure you tell them they didn’t do anything wrong to make the hurricane happen and that there is nothing they could do to prevent it or make it better.
- Encourage them to express their feelings openly. Words are fine, but many kids won’t be able to put their experience into words. So be prepared to draw or color with them. You can find coloring books developed specifically for this purpose in English at: http://www.mentorresearch.org/Documents/StormFloodColoringBookParentGuide.pdf and in Spanish at : http://www.mentorresearch.org/Documents/SpanishFlood%20StormRecoveryParenting.pdf
- Talk about coping strategies, and if necessary act out methods to help them deal with times when they may feel overwhelmed with anger, sadness, or fear.
- Have them help you around the house, even better if you can have them do something to help others. Helping re-establishes some sense of control- one of the things that makes the trauma of this hurricane bad is that we were out of control of what happened.