Social Worker: Worries, Anxiety Linger 1 Year After Tornado

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One year after a tornado swept through several western and central Massachusetts communities, the psychological effects still linger for some residents — including kids.

Last summer, the Monson school district received a grant from United Way for a social worker to counsel children and their parents. Maria Maloney has continued working with families and says although the town is healing, stresses stemming from the tornado still affect concentration and school work, among other things. She expects today’s anniversary to renew anxieties about the weather.

WBUR Morning Edition host Bob Oakes sat down with Maloney to talk about the mental health effects of the tornado, from the time it first hit to now.

Maria Maloney: I think the younger children, it depended what their parents’ reactions were like. But certainly it was very traumatic for people, especially those that were caught in the storm. So the younger kids, I think they didn’t know what to expect or what was coming next. Some wondered, of course, if another tornado was going to happen shortly. They were worried about the weather, that kind of thing. Others experienced very typical problems in terms of difficulty with sleep, higher anxiety, so kind of helping them with some different sleep routines and calming relaxation strategies seemed to help.

Bob Oakes: Was there a feeling of a lack of being safe?

I think some of the younger kids, and even some of the older kids, worried about that and if they were safe or what would happen next if something might happen again.

And how do you help kids, especially little kids, through that?

I think talking with kids — small kids — we created different ideas. One [thing] that we worked on with several kids from kindergarten through the early primary grades was around making a "busy box," which was just a box of preferred activities. So if they noticed the weather was getting dark outside or it might be a rain storm or something like that and they were worried, they kind of knew, ‘OK, well here’s my box and I can sit and do these things that I like to do.’ And it was a relaxing thing for them.

I worked with a lot of kids on bedtime routines. Some kids were afraid to go to sleep because they were scared of the weather, so we would set up where like they had a Barbie or someone that would guard the windowsill and that Barbie would watch and see if there was going to be a storm that night, so they could go to sleep because their Barbie would take care of things.

Do you find that kids are still concerned about the weather?

Some of them, yes. I had a fifth-grade student recently show me a book on tornadoes and other difficult weather situations. I think they’re more in tune to it.

What’s the lasting impact?

At times there’s some unsettled feelings. I think anxiety is still up there at times. I think sometimes kids are... [they] can be on edge. Where it might have been just a little disagreement, they might... get a little more agitated more quickly and then usually that can be diffused with some mediating.

Has the appearance of the town affected kids and the townspeople?

I’ve certainly heard many students and their families talk to me about how things look different, how things are different, how they won’t be the same. We had a fundraiser at the middle school for the tree planting that happened and I think that was certainly a positive event. And I think things like that that continue to kind of contribute to the landscape and kind of bring some new life to things will help.

Did you move here after the tornado?

I did not move here, but my daughter now goes to school here.

So you bring her with you?

I do. Yes.

And why did you do that?

After everything, I really wanted her near me in the daytime and I like to be able to check in on her and see her. And I love this middle school, so I wanted her to be a part of it.

So you felt a lot of the same things that the folks you’ve been dealing with and have been trying to help have also felt.

I believe so. I heard a lot of parents talk to me about the day that the tornado happened and where they were, and if they couldn’t get to their child or they were trying to get to their children and some of them were working in Springfield or other places. And I thought I would never want that to happen. But I did hear a lot of parents talk about that and how hard it was for them to be separate from their child.

This program aired on June 1, 2012.


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