The Months To Come: Helping Our Children Move Forward After the World Trade Center Tragedy
In the months to come parents will be faced with children who have an on-going need to process the tragic events of September 11 as well as the unfolding current events that continue to spiral outward from that date. The biggest challenge facing us will be identifying our children's need to process when that need arises.
Children are particularly good at distracting themselves from traumatic events. In a way, this is healthy as it allows the jarred psyche to heal, much like putting a Band-Aid over a wound protects it and allows the fibers of the skin to re-knit themselves. The difficulty, however, is that our children's thoughts and feelings - both about the event and the subsequent history that is unfolding before us day by day - will not just disappear. Instead, those thoughts and feelings will go underground, perhaps for weeks or even months, only to bubble up to the surface of our children's behavior at unexpected times. This means that sometimes our children will behave in ways that are a direct result of the events, but because the behavior is so disconnected in time from the events themselves we may have difficulty recognizing the connection. In addition, children's behavior may seem to be an "inappropriate" reaction. In other words, rather than the child showing sadness or anxiety, he may instead engage in inappropriate laughter, obnoxious behavior or exhibit extremely high energy levels - all of which are ways of releasing tension, but which may make it difficult to recognize that the behavior is a reaction to world events.
One way to encourage children to process information on a regular basis is to bring the topic up from time to time in a casual way. Sometimes parents feel worried that revisiting a particular topic, or reopening it for discussion will intensify the child's feelings. The opposite, however, is true. If a child is worrying about something, it's comforting for a parent to bring it up rather than for the child to have to find the words to approach it himself. There are a variety of ways to open the lines of communication so that children can talk about their possible anxiety, distress or discomfort:
* Through play: (This is particularly helpful with toddlers.) Have appropriate toys (airplanes, buildings, fire trucks, etc.) available and within easy reach. Offer to play with your child and ask if she'd like to play with those toys. Be sensitive to words like "war," "fighting", "evil" etc. which may mean she's worried about those things. Reassure your child if necessary. Remember too that if your child does not feel the need to process anything, she won't want to play with those particular toys.
* The direct approach: (Helpful with elementary aged children and above.) "I'm wondering if you've thought any more about the World Trade Center, and if you have any questions you feel haven't been answered" or "I'm wondering if you have any questions about what's happening in the news these days."
* Cut out articles from the newspaper: (Good when children are capable of reading those articles themselves.) Choose articles that aren't too disturbing, but that relate directly to the event in some way (or to current events). Ask your child if he thinks that the article would be interesting to send to one of your relatives. In that way you can check in to see if the child is interested in knowing more, or if he already has information from friends or teachers, and you will open the door to communication.
* Make more time to talk. (VERY important for all ages.) Children are more likely to express thoughts and feelings if we make "down time" part of every day. Some children talk more readily when they're doing a parallel activity with their parent - cooking, folding laundry, playing a board game - while others relate more to having some "cuddle time" right before bed. Build time into your daily routine as a good preventative measure so that when your child is ready to talk or process, the time already exists.
Keep in mind that any information you give your child should be factual and concise, and appropriate for their developmental level. Being honest with your child helps maintain trust between the two of you, which is so critical to children feeling safe. This does not mean, however, that you need to give your child more information than he's ready to hear. Present him with opportunities to talk, and then allow him to take the lead in asking questions, and be sure that you fully understand what question is being asked before you answer. For example, "Why did this happen?" may really mean, "Will this happen again?" If a child asks you the same question over and over, even though you're answering it each time, it may mean that you've misinterpreted the question. If you're unsure what question is being asked, ask your child to rephrase the question by saying, "I'm not sure what you're asking. Can you find a different way to ask?" When you do answer, make it short. The child will ask another question if he's ready to hear more.
When your child asks you a question, remember that if you take it slowly and "feel your way" then there is no mistake that you can make that is catastrophic. It is our own fear that we cannot handle the questions that the children will ask that causes us to rush. You have within you an answer to every question a child could ask you, even if the answer is sometimes "I don't know."
As you move forward, reassure your child that you will be there to take care of her and answer any questions she has. In addition, as events in the news unfold, maintain an attitude of confidence that you can and will keep your child safe.
Finally, allow your children to continue with age-appropriate interests and activities. Remember that processing information and taking a break from processing are both necessary for healing to take place.