By Moshe Borowski, LMSW, ACSW
It has been a week now since the brutal attack in Har Nof. We have heard hespedim and read inspiring tributes to the victims. We’ve davened and learned, whispered and talked, perhaps inwardly wondered and raged. We speak with our friends, spouses, rabbis, for guidance, peace of mind and a sense of unity at a fragmented time.
But how are our children doing? Have they been spoken to, or better yet, spoken with, about the events last week? If not, it almost inevitably boils down to a few classic rationales which we often hear from parents:
1) “Young kids don’t hear about these things in the first place.”
2) “Even if they did, they wouldn’t understand them anyway.”
3) “The school didn’t discuss it with the students, so wouldn’t I actually be confusing my child by raising the issues?”
4) “If you leave these types of issues alone, they may hear about it but the impact will quickly fade.”
5) “Of course they understand! That’s exactly why I’m not raising the issue! I don’t want to cause any undo fear.”
6) “Of course they understand! And of course I want to discuss it with them! I just simply don’t know how.”
The common thread:
ALL of these opinions that parents have, show how desperately they want their children to be OK, safe, sound and unsullied by the madness that sometimes erupts around us.
In today’s day and age, a school-age child is almost bound to feel the impact of events that are so violent and “close to home.” Whether he hears about it at home, yeshiva, shul, bus stop or playground, or senses the fear and confusion of adults around him, he will inevitably sense the apprehensive mood.
We all want to protect our children. We are designed that way. However, by good heartedly avoiding any discussion, we unintentionally leave our children susceptible to a vivid imagination without boundaries. Yes, the truth about what happened is indeed “bad news.” But it is still “better” than facing unbridled fantasies.
Assuming that what they hear from friends or acquaintances will be accurate, or sufficient, can actually makes things more difficult for children, not easier. As in the game of “telephone,” the facts often get skewed, and the fervor builds. As a result, a terror attack, which is inherently frightening, can become considerably scarier than need be. As concerned adults, it behooves us to ensure that children hear the facts in as basic, straightforward, truthful, gentle and reassuring way as possible.
The following “Dos and Don’ts” can focus you when helping children cope with trauma or bereavement.
What Children Crave
- To feel protected, safe and secure (don’t we all?) – assure, and reassure, them of this.
- To feel part of something (family, school, friends, neighborhood) – let them know that they are not alone, that others are impacted but that we are all in this together.
- Free to react in ways which are most comfortable – some people are “attenders” and want lots of details, which helps them to feel more in control. Others are “distractors” and cope better by avoiding certain aspects of what is going on. Eilu v’eilu: both approaches are valid!
- To feel normal – assure them that despite the fear or confusion in their thoughts and feelings, others are coping similarly, and that this is totally normal under the circumstances. As the psychiatrist and author Viktor Frankl famously remarked, “An abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal behavior.”
What Children Loathe
- To feel judged – they are feeling bad enough as it is. Feeling judged is belittling and demeaning, and breeds anger and mistrust.
- To be told “stop feeling that way, stop talking that way.” – There are no exact recipes when it comes to trauma or bereavement responses.
- To be told that “it’s time to get over this already.” – There are also no exact timetables to trauma response. Experiencing reactions for as long as 30 days is considered quite normal. Disconcerting, painful, scary, but normal.
- To be told “I know how you feel” – this does not make children feel better; rather, it often infuriates them. Even if they have smiled, nodded their heads and thanked you for your concern, they may be inwardly screaming, “You have no idea how I feel!”
- To have themselves, or those who have died, be minimized – do not say, “Well, he died, but his wife can remarry.” Or “the child did die, but his parents can always have more children.”
- To be told that they are too “up and down” – it is very common for reactions to roller coaster. When added to the normally difficult aspects of adolescence, this can make for a rough few weeks, or more.
The “good news” is that the overwhelming majority of children will return to normal relatively soon. After the attacks of 9/11, after which the phrase “the world will never be the same again” became a national mantra, approximately 85% of those traumatized recovered quickly.
Born out of decades of experience in the field, we have developed a guide to helping children cope with trauma. Below is a brief sampling of “When the Unmentionable Needs to be Mentioned,” which is available by contacting our office via email, firstname.lastname@example.org or phone (646) 519-2190.
You should consider using the guide if:
- Children have not yet been spoken with at home or school and they are exhibiting significant changes in the emotional, physical, cognitive, behavioral or spiritual aspects of their lives.
- They have spoken with an adult, but continue to have significant issues.
- They have spoken with an adult, but have exposure to misinformation or to information delivered in an anxious, tense or alarmed manner.
If you have any questions or concerns, please consult with a mental health professional prior to utilizing the guide with your child.
Helping Children in Tough Times:
Coping with Trauma and Bereavement
- The basic rule of thumb is: if children are going to hear about an incident, make sure that they hear about it from you. That way, you can control the flow of information and the manner in which it is delivered. Your tone of voice and body language will have a large impact on how children understand, and react to, the situation.
- The terror factor exacerbates an already difficult subject: how to explain death to young children. In an effort to protect children, adults may employ euphemisms (“very deep sleep,” “long vacation,” “passed away”) to describe death. Unfortunately, such phrases are often counterproductive, leaving some children confused, pained and unnecessarily fearful of activities like sleep or family trips.
- Young children may ask blunt and gory questions, and ask them repeatedly, in an effort to make some sense of what has happened. This can be very unsettling to adults. Keep in mind that children are designed to use these methods to cope with trauma. Be patient with them and don’t engage in arguments or power struggles.
- For teens, their information-seeking may be presented as grappling with issues of spirituality, emotions, politics, religion. These weighty matters may reflect the concerns they have already begun to ponder as they navigate adolescence and approach young adulthood. But such questions may also mask the difficulty they are having in verbalizing, or admitting, that they are scared and confused about what has occurred.
- Whatever your answers are, be empathic and genuine, not dogmatic, manipulative or condescending. Once a child senses that you are answering sincerely and sensitively, you may have a chance to engage in a meaningful dialogue.
- Refer to last week’s “Common Grief Reactions of Children” for classic responses that children may have (physical, emotional, behavioral, cognitive and spiritual) following a trauma or loss.
- Validate children’s reactions. Children often harbor fears that “I’m going crazy” or “I’m the only one going through this.” Hearing that such reactions are normal and common can be exceptionally calming. In today’s vernacular, this single intervention can become a “game changer,” impacting how children ultimately respond to what has happened.
- When you share your own feelings, it can help normalize things for some children. Make sure, however, that children do not misinterpret your openness and think that you are “falling apart.” Assure them that while it is normal to feel sad or scared, you are coping with the situation at hand. Children always need to sense your resilience, strength and support, especially at times like these.
- One of the scariest feelings that death in general, and a terror attack in particular, triggers is a lack of control and autonomy. Children often cope better when they are able to “do something” during times of trauma. Some students may prefer to work on a project directly related to what has happened, while others may busy themselves with things that help them avoid facing the tragedy. Avoidance can be a very valid method of coping. Don’t push children in either direction.
- It is important to recognize and respect each child’s style of coping. There are no specific “recipes,” “formulas” or “roadmaps” on how to handle grief.
- Yiddishkeit contains many concepts and traditions that promote healing, comfort and solace. Tzeddakah or chessed are extremely popular, meaningful and fulfilling.
- The importance of “just being there” (irrespective of what you say or whether you speak at all) should be explained to students prior to a shiva call. Girls, whether in elementary, middle or high school, are often much more attuned to this concept.
- The Jewish vision of “the cosmic tapestry of life” often provides some measure of comfort. “I don’t know why this happened and I don’t know why I’ve felt this way ever since. But I have hope and faith that at some point it will become clear how all of this fits into the larger scheme of life and history.”
- Identifying a middah of the niftar that can be emulated, even for short periods of time, can be quite meaningful. This process helps create/maintain a connection/relationship with the deceased, and provides solace and meaning to survivors that their actions are helping the deceased in some spiritual sense. Following this particular attack, newspapers (from the Wall Street Journal to national Jewish publications) have provided vignettes about the victims. It is quite possible to learn from these kedoshim without ever having known them.
Moshe Borowski, LMSW, ACSW, is the Director of Crisis Intervention at Chai4ever.
He may be reached at email@example.com or by calling (732) 998-6964.
At Chai4ever, we help mitigate the impact of parental illness or loss on children by providing practical and emotional support to allow families to maintain routines, and reinstate a semblance of normal childhood throughout this challenging time.
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