We all saw the view from space of Hurricane Sandy as it made its way to the Eastern Seaboard, but nobody was prepared for the damage it would leave in its wake. Here in Maine, we did what we could to prepare before the storm: cleaned up the yard (i.e., finally put the mismatched beach chairs away), got some extra gas, pulled out the generator, and battened down the hatches. (This blog post by Jacoba Urist shows me that we were under-prepared as parents, as it turns out.)
I hadn’t even considered how anxiety about the storm might be affecting our son emotionally. A few hours before Hurricane Sandy hit, he told me that a kid in his class had started crying at school that day because she was scared.
“Are you scared of the storm?” I asked.
“A little. No. Maybe,” he said in a small voice.
I reassured him that we were ready and that we’d be fine, and that our relatives in New Jersey were all prepared, too.
We made it through the storm that night, firing up the generator when the power went out. We tried to make it fun by playing games and having a big camp-out in Mom and Dad’s room. We were fortunate in comparison to other regions of the country. The next day, our son went to school and we went to work. Then we started seeing the pictures emerging from the devastation in New York and New Jersey and other areas along the East Coast. Thankfully, our family members in New Jersey are all safe, though they are dealing with ongoing power outages and flooding. And they are the lucky ones. There are many, many families out there who lost loved ones in the storm, or whose entire neighborhoods were destroyed. “Heartbreaking” doesn’t even begin to describe what people in that area are going through right now.
As parents, we are trying to give our son the space to talk about the storm if he wants to. Let’s face it, it’s hard to know how to talk to your children about natural disasters, especially when they hit so close to home. Through it all, I’ve realized that one of the hardest things we have to do as parents is act like we are okay and that everything will be fine, even when we aren’t so sure ourselves.
Experts who deal in crisis managemen at the NMHA have excellent tips for parents on talking to kids about disasters and tragedies.
Here are a few that may help:
- Children need comforting and frequent reassurance that they’re safe. Make sure they get it.
- Encourage younger children to express their feelings through talking, drawing or playing.
- Try to maintain your daily routines as much as possible.
- False reassurance does not help grade school age kids. Don’t say tragedies will never happen; children will know this isn’t true. Instead, say “You’re safe now and I’ll always try to protect you,” or “Adults are working very hard to make things safe.” Remind children that tragedies are very rare.
- Children’s fears often get worse around bedtime, so you might want to stick around until the child falls asleep in order to make him or her feel protected.
- Monitor children’s media viewing. Images of the tragedy and the damage are extremely frightening to children, so consider limiting the amount of media coverage they see.
- Don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know.”
- Adolescents may turn to their friends for support. Encourage friends and families to get together and discuss the event to allay fears.
Our family also talked about ways we can help people in New York and New Jersey. We’ve decided to make up a box of clothes to donate, and will also donate to the Red Cross’s relief efforts . (Text REDCROSS to 90999 to give $10 to American Red Cross Disaster Relief.) The Red Cross has also asked for donations to be made to its blood bank, if you’d rather help the effort that way.
About Elisabeth Wilkins
Elisabeth Wilkins was the editor of Empowering Parents and the mother of an 10-year-old son. Her work has appeared in national and international publications, including Mothering, Motherhood (Singapore), Hausfrau, The Bad Mother Chronicles, and The Japan Times. Elisabeth holds a Masters in Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Southern Maine.