Distinguish between your feelings and your children’s feelings. For parents, one of the most challenging things about this kind of a disaster is the fact that we are having our own reactions at the same time we are called upon to respond to our children. Because children’s experiences are so highly influenced by our emotions, clarifying the difference between our feelings and theirs is essential.
Each of us perceives events through the lens of our own life experience. For those of us who have lived in countries at war or under siege, terror may be our predominant response to the attacks on New York and Washington DC. If we’ve lost loved ones through accident or tragedy, old feelings of loss may be re-stimulated. For most of us, feelings of vulnerability, sadness, worry, fear and anger will all jockey for position us as we struggle to figure out how to keep our precious children safe in an uncertain world.
Children, who don’t share our life experience, will most likely have very different perceptions and reactions than we do. In order for us to clearly focus on what they need, we must first find ways to explore, acknowledge and express our own feelings.
It is essential, however, that our children not be burdened with the full extent of our adult responses. We need to find ways to resolve our strongest feelings when we aren’t with our children. For some of us, that may mean talking to friends, family members, faith communities or professional counselors. For others, it might mean crying, writing, or finding ways to take meaningful action.
In the hours following the attacks on September 11, many people sat glued to radios or TVs. Others felt compelled to cook a pot of soup, plant something in the garden or to give blood. We all have ways we regain our equilibrium when the world shifts beneath our feet, and it is important that we do those things that help us recapture even a small sense of normalcy and control. It is only from that place of stability that we can give our children the kind of attention they need to explore their feelings and make sense of tragedy.
- Share your feelings with your child in age-appropriate ways. Children learn about the world through their parents and caregivers, as well as through their own direct experience. While the full force of our sadness, helplessness, fear or anger will be overwhelming and scary to children of almost every age, a few tears with our preschoolers and some sharing of our more complex feelings with older children can help them understand the reality and seriousness of the event. Expressing appropriate feelings can provide a useful model to our children. However, since children are so influenced by our feelings, it can sometimes be helpful to encourage them to express their feelings before we share our own.
- Listen closely to your children. Listen to your children with your eyes and your ears. Even before children have the words to express what they are feeling, their bodies and expressions give us clues. Watch for changes in behavior: withdrawing, fighting, crying, clinging, listlessness, testing. Be alert for times when they are more likely to talk--just before sleep, in the car, reading time, when they are alone with you, while you are cooking dinner. Try to make yourself available at their chosen time. They may not know how to access that feeling again later, when you are free. Listen for a long time before you offer your opinion or ideas. Often, we jump in with advice, information or reassurance before we really know what our children are thinking and feeling.
- Help kids understand, identify and express their feelings. Learning how to recognize what we are feeling is not an easy task, especially in a culture that values certain feelings and shuns others. If you see your child having a feeling, you can ask a question or offer a suggestion. “Can you tell me about your feeling?” or, “You look like you might be feeling sad,” or “I wonder if you are feeling scared.” Remember, too, that anger is often a cover for other emotions. If your child seems unusually anger, there may be fear and helplessness lurking beneath.
- Ask open-ended questions. Sometimes children need encouragement to keep talking. Open-ended questions such as: “What else are you thinking about?” “How do you feel about that?” “Tell me more about your idea?” “What do you think would happen then?” “How do you think those people feel?” may encourage children to explore more of their own thoughts. You can also just wait attentively for children to sort through what they want to say. Give them the gift of your time and attention.
- Remember that talking and expressing feelings is part of the healing process. It can feel worrisome to see our children in the throes of fear or anger. In response, we may want to try to distract them or short-circuit their expression of feelings. It is helpful to remember that positive (not hurtful) expression of feelings is the most empowering healing tool we have. Keeping feelings tucked neatly inside only leads to confusion, misdirection and poor health, not just for our children, but for us as well.
- Be judicious about the media your children are exposed to. Depending on their age, children will naturally be exposed to various levels of media coverage. For children under seven, you may be able to limit the images they see. As fascinated as we are with watching all of the details immediately on TV, it can be very scary for young children who don’t have our experience or perspective on the world. For instance, you have probably flown in a plane many times. Your young child has probably flown a few times, at most. You know, experientially, that most planes don’t crash, but your child doesn’t have that breadth of experience or the ability to think abstractly about the thousands of planes flying successfully to their destinations every day. He is more likely than you to believe that the next plane he gets on will probably crash into a building. Or a child might get scared of being in tall buildings, since their only experience with tall buildings is seeing one blow up on TV.
If you have to get your news while your children are around, reading the paper or listening to the radio are less scary for your young child, than watching TV. Remember, also, that even if they are in the room (seeming like they are not watching) and you have they TV on, they are often paying some attention, especially if a disaster comes on.
For older children, it is important to watch, hear, or read the coverage with them. That way, you are there to talk with them as their fears, questions and concerns come up.
Take action. While most of us are experiencing feelings of powerlessness right now, there are many important things we can do. Our helpless feelings can lead us in many directions--some may be tempted to batten down the hatches to create a safe little cell amidst a dangerous world. Others like to turn feelings of fear and powerlessness into anger and a thirst for revenge. When terrible things happen, we are eager to identify an enemy so that we can work out our vulnerable feelings. By punishing the “bad guy,” we try to convince ourselves that this travesty won’t happen again, but in reality, it is the punishment mentality that created this disaster in the first place.
When the unthinkable happens, we face a choice. We can escalate the crisis through our response or we can take our power and create a different kind of world, starting with our families and our communities. We have the power to help our children understand how violence happens. We have the power to work to create the safest communities and neighborhoods possible so our children can feel confident about the world they inhabit. Taking positive action is not only necessary for the health of our world; it is essential for the survival of our optimism. We can make a difference by:
• Sending help directly to the people who are affected• Taking a stand against racism, making sure that we don’t tolerate individuals being targeted because of their ethnicity
• Offering support to families who are fearful or stressed
• Helping young people organize to offer assistance to families involved in the disaster
- Spend time as a family. Your kids need you more than anything right now. Think of family time as time where children learn how to communicate, play, listen to and respect the feelings of others. Focus on being together, doing projects together, playing together. Limit time spent watching TV or playing video games. Those activities don’t further a child’s sense of connection to family. And in a crisis, what you child needs is to feel connected.
Talking to children of different ages
Children understand the disaster in terms of their own developmental level and personalize it to their own experience. It is important to talk to children honestly and in ways they can comprehend about what happened. Giving them too much information can be scary and confusing. There are ways to be honest with children at each developmental level without overwhelming them.
Children between the ages of birth and five years of age think of the world in terms of their direct experience. Three to five year olds might be interested in ambulances, fire trucks, people getting hurt, blood, fire, crashes and buildings falling down. Four and five year olds will also be fascinated with death, although they can’t yet fully understand it. One four year old said happily to her mother, “A building came crashing down and lots of people died, but I didn’t die!” Young children won’t be interested in or able to understand the political significance of what happened.
If children haven’t heard about what’s happened, it is not necessary to tell them anything. However, if they have seen the news or experienced someone being upset, you could explain, “An accident happened and an airplane hit a building and lots of people were hurt. It is very sad for the people who were hurt and for their families.”
Children of this age also engage in “magical thinking.” They might say things like, “I could just fly up and stop that plane so it wouldn’t hit the building.” Or, “The next time that happens, I’d throw my magic net up and all the people in the building and plane could jump into it and be safe.” It is not necessary correct children’s magical thinking. Soon enough they will understand events and their own skills more realistically. Rather, we can appreciate their intention. “You sound like you would work hard to help keep those people safe.” “You are full of ideas about how to keep people safe.”
Young children may also want to talk about what happened, repeatedly asking the same questions. This is because they are not fully able to comprehend the events or the feelings around them. It is useful to keep answering their questions, to ask them what they think, to see what they think would help. Young children might also want to draw pictures and dictate stories for you to write down.
The most important thing for preschool-aged children is to reassure them that you will keep them safe. If they express particular fears, you can reassure them directly -- telling them you don’t believe that any planes are going to crash near where they are.
Elementary School Children
Six to twelve year olds are more able to understand events outside their direct experience. They are able to read, so protecting them from information about the events is unlikely. They can comprehend ideas like hijacking, yet it is stretch for them to think about people who are willing to die for their beliefs. This is an age where it is important to listen to children’s ideas. They may understand some pieces of the story very clearly and be totally confused about others.
At this age, you can begin to explain what motivates people to act in violent ways. “People who feel angry and hopeless, and who don’t know other ways to express their feelings, sometimes hurt others and themselves.” You can also ask them to help you think about more positive ways people could express their frustration and anger about their life circumstances.
Middle and High School
We are a culture saturated in media violence with few skills to deal with the feelings associated with real tragedy and fewer ideas about productive responses. Many people who saw the World Trade Center collapse compared it to movies they’d seen.
It is likely that many media-saturated teens will experience confusion about the reality of this situation. Some may laugh it off or ignore it. As parents of these teens, it is important that we don’t mistakenly think they are handling things well because they aren’t taking it seriously or don’t need to talk about it. Many may be avoiding talking about the situation directly because they don’t know what to do about the fear, anger, confusion and sadness they are carrying.
It is important to bring it up with them and to ask them what they think about it and how they are feeling. You can also ask them about how they think their friends are handling it. Some teens may be very fearful, as they are old enough to understand the political dynamics and the possibility of larger target areas.
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Attack on America: For the Victims