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When Hurricane Katrina hit, 80 percent of New Orleans —a city that was home to more than 400,000 people at the time – went under water.

Swarms of displaced residents sought refuge in the Superdome and, later, in FEMA trailers where some residents lived for years.

This natural disaster was one of the worst in US history.

Displacement, even temporary, causes stress for everyone involved, but it hits children the hardest. Let’s look at some signs of stress and methods to cope, including getting back into the routine of school.

SIGNS OF STRESS

According to NYU Child Study Center’s “Caring for Kids After Trauma, Disaster and Death”, signs of stress come in various forms.

For younger kids, crying, an upset stomach, bed-wetting, thumb sucking and mood fluctuations are common indicators.

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For middle school-aged children, the same anxiety can occur, along with other symptoms like irritability, anger, overeating or loss of appetite, vomiting, nausea, headaches, nightmares, nail biting and avoidance of the problem by distancing themselves.

For teens, they’ll also be susceptible to seeking comfort in drugs and alcohol to cope with pain.

SOLUTIONS TO STRESS

Stress during a crisis is inevitable, but there are a number of ways to alleviate it.

Talk to your children. Ask questions to find out what their fears are and provide answers. Much of their anxiety comes from not knowing what’s going on. Assure them that it’s OK to cry.

Avoid news coverage on TV, as the media replays violent and horrific incidences repeatedly, which can be damaging to younger children in particular.

Use positive thinking and remain in control of your emotions, if not the situation—you’re the adult and they look to you for cues and guidance. What’s worse than going through a survival situation? Roughing it alone. So stay positive, especially if your family is safe and together.

It’s also important to get back into a routine as quickly as possible.

A ROUTINE

During times of crisis, it’s healthy to remain as close to a normal routine as you can … and that includes schooling.

Regardless of where you’re living, you should have materials on hand to home school your children, or at least maintain a routine similar to what they had before the crisis struck. That way, they’ll be mentally prepared to return to school and won’t fall too far behind.

You can use the textbooks or reading materials that the children already have and pick up where they left off at school, or pack workbooks and reading materials for their appropriate grade level. There may also be educational materials available through libraries, and church and other charitable groups.

If you’re home schooling for an extended period of time, be sure you know your state and local home schooling requirements and laws.

 

IT’S ONLY TEMPORARY

A natural disaster isn’t forever, even though it may feel like it at the time. The path may be difficult but, eventually, your life can resume a level of normalcy. Do your best to make it as normal as you can, as fast as you can.

 

TIPS FOR HOME SCHOOLING

If you have access to a computer and the internet, the following sites can provide a temporary curriculum for your child to continue learning online:

  • The FEMA Web site (www.Ready.gov/kids) has downloads available for preschool to elementary kids. Some of what they offer includes the FEMA coloring book, activity book, and lessons and activities. This site also has countless resources for you and your family for both before and after disaster strikes.
  • Visit www.Time4Learning.com for home schooling materials online for students from pre-K to 12th grade.
  • You may purchase books and curriculum packages at www.HomeschoolingBooks.com

 

A KEY TO COMFORT

It’s amazing how a smell or favorite item can bring you back to memories of a better time. Utilize the fact that kids have a favorite toy or comfort item that keeps them at ease. When packing an emergency kit, be sure to include at least one item per child for their psychological comfort. The items could be:

  • A stuffed animal
  • A sweater or jacket
  • Coloring book and crayons or markers
  • Favorite blanket they may be reliant on for comfort
  • Family photos

 

 

SIGNS OF STRESS

YOUNGER CHILDREN

• Crying

• An upset stomach

• Bed-wetting

• Thumb-sucking

• Mood fluctuations

MIDDLE-SCHOOL AGED

• The same anxiety as the youngsters

• Nervousness

• Anger

• Overeating or loss of appetite

• Vomiting, nausea, headaches

• Nightmares

• Nail-biting

TEENS

• Drug and alcohol abuse

(Source: NYU Child Study Center’s “Caring for Kids After Trauma, Disaster and Death”)

 

 

PSYCHOLOGY OF A DISASTER

The Crisis of Change, the Comfort of Control By Thomas J. Nardi, Ph.D.

People are driven to seek pleasure and avoid pain. So say the psychologists who follow the theories of Freud.

In contrast to the Freudians are the Behaviorists. They believe that people act according to rewards and punishments. If a behavior is rewarded, it tends to be repeated; if punished or not rewarded, it usually is not repeated.

While appreciating the merit of these two theories, my experience as a psychologist suggests another perspective on what motivates us. Yes, we do seek pleasure (or rewards) and avoid pain (or punishment), but there is perhaps another, even stronger, motive behind our actions.

 

MOTIVATION

Perhaps what really motivates us the most is the desire for the security provided by the familiar.

The father of American psychology, William James, wrote that “Habit is the great flywheel of society.” James believed that habit—the familiar routine of our daily lives—is what holds society together and keeps us going.

There is a certain comfort in the familiar. It provides a sense of security, control, comfort and safety. The “sameness” of our day minimizes the disruptions that can tax our ability to cope. The familiar routine helps us achieve and maintain a certain homeostasis or balance both physically and emotionally, within ourselves.

We do not want “surprises” that throw us off. Change challenges us. Change—even positive change—produces stress. Our bodies and minds are called to adapt to a new situation. The greater the change, the more of a challenge to regain our homeostatic balance. Major changes produce what I term a “crisis of change.”

Calamities, whether natural or manmade, change our lives. The expression “everything changed after 9/11” illustrates the long lasting effect of one devastating crisis.

GET BACK TO NORMAL

One of the best ways of regaining your homeostatic equilibrium after a crisis is to return to your normal routine as soon as possible. Even if circumstances prevent a full return, the closer to the familiar you can get, the better.

The structure provided by the return to the familiar routine will facilitate recovery from the crisis. Quite simply, the more control you can establish over your external situation by returning to your normal routine, the more in control you will feel. And, the more in-control you feel, the faster and better you will recover, survive and overcome the crisis.

 

Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in a 2013 print issue of American Survival Guide.