If your home was damaged in Hurricane Sandy, your kids might be reeling from the loss. Here's something you can teach them as a coping mechanism: the catchphrase "people first, things second."
"That's so children can remember that the main thing is that you're safe, and that that's what you value as their parent," says therapist Don Sinkfield, founder of Help to Adjust Counseling in Valley Stream. Sinkfield and other Long Island therapists offered these 10 ways to help parents whose children are dealing with the aftermath of houses, possessions and yards flooded or ruined:
1. Hold it together emotionally, and continue to model for the kids how to handle loss as the weeks go on. "You are your child's strength," says Locust Valley-based psychologist Leah Klungness, author of "The Complete Single Mother." "They'll look to you to gauge what's going on."
Wendi Fischer, school psychologist in the Elwood school district, agrees: "You don't want to say, 'It's not a big deal.' It is a big deal." But you should explain to kids, "This is how we're going to handle it." Kids are going to experience disappointment and crisis in their lives. Parents should focus on explaining that everything can be replaced and explain how insurance will help. Show them that even if something stressful happens, it can be dealt with.
2. Lead kids in expressing any sadness over their losses. Say a favorite stuffed animal was destroyed, for instance. "Talk to them about what they loved about it," Fischer says. Review the memories of why it's sentimental to the child. While a toy might not seem to be a big deal to you in the scope of the devastation, it's part of their world. "Don't say, 'It's just stuff.' It's their stuff, and it's important to them," Klungness agrees. Validate their emotions. "You can all acknowledge that you feel a particular personal loss."
3. Point out the potential positives. Maybe in rebuilding, for instance, the kids can pick out new furniture or toys they really want, Fischer says. Teach them the concept of embracing a "Plan B." Say: "Things may be different from the way they were before, but we might even like it different," Klungness says.
4. Remove the kids from the situation as much as possible. If you are living with another relative temporarily and have to return to the house to meet with insurance adjusters or contractors, don't bring the kids, Sinkfield says.
5. Keep the TV off, even after your power comes back on. Kids don't need that exposure to images of sewage backed up into homes and cars that have floated away, Klungness says. "They really don't need that 24/7 anxiety and angst. They don't understand what they're seeing, and they're not going to be better off if they do. This is a good time to pull out the board games, the LEGOs."
6. Help answer the question, "Why me?" Kids may want to know why their house was damaged but a friend's wasn't. Let them know that sometimes good things happen, and sometimes bad things happen, and that life isn't necessarily fair, Fischer says. Help them with acceptance.
7. Provide uplifting anecdotes. Tell them stories about other people who have dealt with similar situations, such as survivors of Hurricane Katrina, and still have thrived, Sinkfield says. Point out how this is an opportunity for people to help each other and for them to meet new people and make new acquaintances and friends. Tell them that even though this change in their lives is born of an unfortunate event, it can have an uplifting end to it if you let it.
8. Help them understand how long it might take for their home to be repaired. For younger kids, you could say it will take "many sleeps," Klungness says. "To say weeks or months is not helpful," Klungness says. To a second-grader, for instance, you might say, "When you're in third grade, the work will be finished."
9. Address their fears of this happening again. Explain how rare this is. "You could look that up," Fischer says. Remind them that meteorologists knew about the storm in advance and you were able to prepare so nobody in your family was hurt.
10. Don't forget the healing power of touch. "We know you hug your kids," Klungness says, "but you need to hug them more. We know you're frantic with insurance claims and trying to balance this catastrophe at home with what you have to do at work. But there really is power in touch."
"Things will get better"
While struggling with the issues of no electricity and getting back into a routine after an unexpected week off from school aren't nearly as challenging as fixing up a damaged home, therapists still have some tips for parents navigating those inconveniences:
- If your electric is still out: Don't make promises about when it will come back. "Don't say things like, 'Probably tomorrow.' This is a time for truth," says Locust Valley psychologist Leah Klungness, author of "The Complete Single Mother" (Adams, $14.95). Explain to kids that power has to be fixed first in the bigger places before it can be fixed in your house. "Assure them that the power is definitely coming back, that this is not a permanent situation."
- If your child is having trouble adjusting to being back in school: Acknowledge that the disruption in the routine can be upsetting. If there's damage in their school, and they couldn't, for instance, go to the music room as usual, tell them, "When things don't go as we're used to having them go, Mommy and Daddy understand that that's very upsetting," Klungness says. "This is not the time for, 'Buck up little Buckaroo.' "
- If your child's friends are facing difficulties: Teach your child sympathy and empathy. "Help kids understand those concepts, to put themselves in other people's places and imagine how they feel," says Wendi Fischer, school psychologist in the Elwood school district. "Talk to them about how to be good friend." Discuss being a good listener, offering a hug, playing games to take friends' minds off their challenges."
These books might help kids understand Hurricane Sandy:
- "Story of a Storm: A Book about Hurricane Katrina" by Reona Visser and Children of the Mississippi Gulf Coast (Quail Ridge Press), is a picture book for grades K to 3 filled with the art of 30 children, ages 5 to 13, who drew images of their lives after Hurricane Katrina. "Our new home was not the same, but it was a home," is the text to one picture.
- The Boxcar Children's "The Hurricane Mystery" (Albert Whitman & Co.) by Gertrude Chandler Warner is a fictional chapter book for grades 3 and up. The Boxcar children go to Charleston, S.C., to help an elderly woman clean up her house after a hurricane and get involved in a mystery.
- "Hurricane Almanac: The Essential Guide to Storms Past, Present, and Future" (St. Martin's Griffin) by Bryan Norcross, a TV hurricane analyst who covered Hurricane Andrew in 1992, may interest older kids who want facts and figures about powerful hurricanes of the past.