Here is a piece that I wrote for the Institute for University School Partnership of the Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration at Yeshiva University. There are additional resources regarding hurricane and trauma and children available on the website at: http://www.yuschoolpartnership.org/
With Hurricane Irene approaching, and on the heels of the earthquake this past week, parents and educators are naturally wondering about how to help children cope and what to say that can prepare and explain these disconcerting phenomena. First and foremost, children want and need reassurance, more than they want or need specific information, so all communication should include a focus on what adults, agencies, and even children can and will do to stay safe. Depending on the age of the child, adults may explain what a hurricane is, or simply say a big storm is coming, and be sure to add a statement of calm reassurance such as but our family, and the people in charge of our town are getting ready so everything works out okay.
We are living with technological advances that bring information rapidly and constantly into our lives and our children's minds - but caring adults may need to do the editing that the media will not. Children can become distressed by pictures on the news that are occurring three states away, because it looks just like the beach near their home. Helping children understand that the media tends to present only the problems, and that pictures or warnings may be for places far away is important. Adults should consider limiting the media access for their children and not having everyone glued to every breaking news bulletin. If family viewing or listening is occurring, adults have to monitor their own verbal and body language responses, since they will greatly affect how children view the situation.
The significant body of research on trauma and tragedy makes it clear that in challenging times, purpose and control are incredibly curative. For all of us the next hours and days are filled with anxiety and a great deal of uncertainty, leaving us feeling quite unsettled. For both adults and children, focusing on what we can control, rather than what we cannot, is helpful. We can't change the weather, but we can unpack some new games to play together during the storm. Focusing on controllable elements can lead directly to having purpose, and adults should strongly consider engaging children in age-appropriate preparations. Young children can help pack up outside toys and bring them inside for shelter. Older children can fill water bottles. Teens can be assigned to call elderly neighbors and see if they need groceries or assistance.
Adults should not be terribly concerned if in moments of uncertainty and threat, children seem a bit regressed, or want more attention or support. Through this stormy weekend, adults should try to be present, patient and the picture of calm, capable caretakers. Children will benefit from seeing how grown-ups cope, and that adults are available and able to keep them safe from life's storms.
Rona Novick, PhD
For more resources, consult the Institute for University School Partnership at http://www.yuschoolpartnership.org/