The first anniversary of Superstorm Sandy, the storm that devastated parts of New York City and New Jersey last fall, raises questions about how to help children cope. Advice has commonly applied to youngsters older than age 5, with little discussion about helping younger ones. Attention should be also paid not only to youngsters who were directly affected, but others far away who may hear about the disaster in school or from peers or extensive media coverage.
To help parents deal with young children during the one-year anniversary of the storm, here's my advice:
- Stay away from sadness. Unless the child asks, consider not bringing up the subject of the storm, or asking (as you might with older children), "What do you remember?" or "How do you feel about what happened last year?" Traumas can affect children at any age, but memories of the storm can pass and children's attention switches easily. As one father told me, "Why would I want to expose my child to any negativity at this young age when he'll have enough of that all through his life?" In contrast, adults commonly experience "anniversary reactions" on marker dates of either happy or sad occasions, when processing feelings and thoughts can be very helpful.
- If you do talk about the storm, be age-appropriate. Explain what happened with stories and words familiar to little ones, evoking storybook themes and names of characters you read to them. "I told my 3-year old son that Mr. Hurricane Sandy came with Mr. Wind and Mr. Rain," one mother told me, wisely naming the elements in ways he can understand.
- Be positive. Reinforce happy memories. When one little girl told me, "I remember a soldier wanted to give me candy," I said, "It feels good, doesn't it, when people are so nice to you?" Encourage older siblings to teach younger ones what they know about nature, that makes big sisters and brothers feel good.
- Teach values that people matter much more than possessions. Kids are normally attached to their "stuff." Staten Island resident and Sandy survivor Nicole Romano-Levine, a high school teacher, is organizing a memorial for her neighborhood, so her youngsters are very aware of the anniversary and talk about it. When her son asks, "What if a big storm comes?" and "What about my stuff?" she wisely answers, "We'll take what's important and get other new things. People matter the most." Show approval when kids talk about how their friends are doing.
- Play. Play therapy -- song, dance, games and creative arts -- is the "gold standard" to help youngsters cope with disaster, applied widely by humanitarian aide organizations and myself in children's workshops worldwide. Ella Fridman, Director of the "Islander's Kids" day care center for young children in the area of Staten Island hardest hit by the storm (www.siccnyc.org), found that fears about the storm can dissipate by redirecting young children's attention, saying, "Let's read, let's sing a song."
- Insure "contact comfort." Make sure young kids have things they love, need and usually sleep with -- like their pillow, blanket and stuffed animals. After the storm, when distributing supplies at relief centers in Staten Island and Far Rockaway (as I have after many disasters, including 9/11), I offered little children stuffed animals to chose from and tell stories about, saying for example, "This teddy bear is so happy to be your new friend and to sleep with you and help you have happy dreams."
- Be extra reassuring. Spend quality time, with lots of hugs and cuddles to make little ones feel safe. To protect her 3-year old daughter -- who saw houses destroyed and her home's basement flooded -- from being frightened long after the storm, a mother smartly says, "Mommy is here. You are OK."
- Correct misunderstandings. Little ones have impressionable minds, so scary memories need to be clarified. One mother told me that whenever her 4-year old son sees a tree falling or hears pounding rain, he gets frightened and says, "Oh, that big storm is coming," but she cleverly corrects him, saying, "No, this time it's just a little wind. Don't worry."
- Look out for signs of distress, but also identify likely causes. Typical signs of trouble include changes in behavior (eating or sleeping) or withdrawal; clinging to parents or not wanting to go to school or daycare (for fear something will happen to them or their parents). Children somaticize stress in physical symptoms (like headaches and stomach aches). However, these symptoms may not be due to the year-old storm trauma, but to recent problems in school or with peers.
- Plan for the anniversary. Happy family experiences are especially helpful at this time. Several parents told me they are definitely not going to public memorials. As one father said, " I don't want to expose my child to any upsets at events like that."
"It's everyone's own choice," says Nicole Romano-Levine who is bringing her children to the memorial she is organizing. "Kids can feel good being in a group," she asserts. "It helps them know we survived and that 'We made it'!"
- Set a good example. Be calm in front of them though it's normal for you to think or worry about ongoing suffering even a year later. Remember that your reactions affect your child, as Fridman wisely notes, "Children are like sponges, even at 3 years old." Research shows that even at the youngest ages, children sense -- and mimic -- adults' behaviors and emotions. Deal with your own anxiety about the storm with other adults, and avoid letting kids overhear.
Seek professional help for any concerns. Some youngsters, especially those still not back in their homes long after the storm, have nightmares, school phobia and other fears. One parent, still living in temporary housing after the family home was destroyed, is at her wits' end with her child continually crying himself to sleep and asking, "Why can't we go home mommy?" Contact local community centers for referrals to child psychologists and family counselors. Getting support for you and your child is always a good idea to insure good health.