Schoolbook spoke with Suniya Luthar, a professor of psychology and education at Columbia University’s Teachers College, about how New York City children are dealing with stress and emotions related to Hurricane Sandy. Luthar specializes in developmental and clinical psychology and studies the resilience of children and families experiencing adversity.
What is the emotional impact of Sandy on the wider population of New York City, beyond the waterfront neighborhoods in Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island?
Children and families who were hit directly have experienced much greater trauma than those who experienced the hurricane from afar, but anyone who lives in this general vicinity has been touched very deeply by this crisis. The biggest thing is really the fear and helplessness after witnessing the events that were so unpredictable and, afterwards, looking at the enormous magnitude of destruction, the lives lost, the physical pain and emotional pain. In this day and age, even if it’s not in your own backyard, with the Internet and media, we are witness to all of this.
How might these emotions affect children and their performance in schools?
If anybody — a child or an adult — is beset with feelings of intense anxiety or fearfulness, it inevitably affects productivity. None of us can function well as scholars, as teachers or children if we’re terrified. Among younger children, you might see restlessness, irritability, problems sleeping, lack of cheerfulness, clinginess, sadness and withdrawal. These signs even apply to older children though teenagers are a little better at containing them.
What can parents and educators do to lessen the stress that the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy may be having on students – both those who have lost homes and schools to the hurricane and those less affected?
Acknowledge that it was very frightening. But there is a delicate balance between dwelling on it, on the one hand, and on the other, saying that’s done and gone and now it’s over and everything is fine. A child, or teenager, or students of mine might feel the need to share their thoughts, debrief, talk about it for a bit, so share your experiences. For young children, you might use drawings or play acting but this could be dangerous because you don’t want to get them to a point where they’re reliving the trauma. Offer them comfort, the equivalent of a cup of soup — we’re all together, we’re all going to be decent with each other, we’ll get through it.
As long as a child feels like there is a safe, comforting and relatively stable adult to whom they can turn, that’s half the battle won. The flip side is who does the adult turn to? This is when community becomes very important. Adults must turn to each other to seek the help they need, whether it’s a blanket or a hug. They need the strength to offer comfort to these little ones who are so terrified. The adult has to feel some semblance of strength and groundedness to be there for a child.
What should schools and families be doing now?
At this point, it’s best to be watchful especially of those children who’ve lost belongings, homes, friends. Through any traumatic crisis of this kind, be on the lookout for those who are not themselves.