Helping children cope with terror and tragedy

On November 18, many of us awoke to texts, e-mails, and Facebook posts sharing the painful news of the terror attack in Har Nof.  This gruesome event, though an ocean away, felt painfully close.

The locations that have been “under attack” in the last several years are not abstractions.  Many of us have prayed in that shul in Har Nof.  Our friends and family live in the same neighborhood as the Fraenkel, Shaer, and Yifrah families.  We have deep, meaningful and very real connections to all of these people and places now linked to terror and tragedy.

As parents and educators, we must do what is always required of us in times of challenge and trauma: We have to be the grown-ups and turn our attention to helping our children make sense of the tragedy.

Sobbing and panicky inside, we need to present ourselves as capable of resilience and protection, as taking all the right steps.  However, when fresh images of violence fill our minds, and adults themselves are grieving, it may be difficult to figure out what those steps might be.

Here are five important guidelines for ushering our children through these challenging times:

(1) Normalize the response – Physically, emotionally, intellectually, or in combination, trauma can cause us to feel out of sorts in a way that is often distressful.  It is important for us to allow ourselves our grief, our increased distractibility, as part of a normal response to an abnormal situation.  Communicating this to children is crucial in helping them recognize that they are not alone or “weird” to be struggling as they are.

Educators and parents should listen for both sadness and resilience in their children’s stories.  We should be ready to sit strong and patient as they share feelings of vulnerability and danger.  We should watch TV with our children and students, prepared to address any disturbing images they see.

(2) Address basic needs and provide safety and material comforts – The Red Cross, and other relief agencies, know all too well that providing food, shelter, and fulfilling primary needs is at least as important as providing psychological comfort.  We should be prepared to provide some extra cuddling or other forms of “TLC,” and allow ourselves be a bit lenient with bedtimes and homework due dates.

Adults need to remember, too, what every airline stewardess knows: If the cabin loses air pressure, and oxygen masks drop from above, take care of yourself, before assisting others.  Adults need to see to their basic needs and comfort, so that they will have the emotional resources to care for their children and students.

(3) Maintain/create social connection and sense of belonging – Tragedy can make us feel alone and cause us to withdraw.  However, spending time with people is critical for resilience.  Rather than distance our children from the pain in Har Nof, we can help them connect in meaningful ways, including writing letters, praying for the lost and wounded, and becoming part of a caring community.

(4) Re-establish routine and control – Trauma and loss upset life’s patterns and erode one’s sense of predictability and control. For most of us, this loss does not impact our daily routine.  Parents and educators need to balance the benefit of adding special programs and lessons to give voice to children’s concerns, with the comfort of maintaining established routines.

(5) Finding purpose/meaning – There is no doubt that how individuals understand tragic events and the meaning they assign them impacts coping and resilience.  While early psychological approaches to coping eschewed spirituality, modern conceptualizations of resilience and recovery put faith at the forefront.  Children may ask challenging spiritual questions at such times.  Much more important than adults having the answers is our willingness to tolerate the questioning.

Research underscores the strength-building power of becoming part of the solution, or serving in a helping role.  Adults help children make meaning in times of great loss and tragedy, when they engage them in meaningful, compassionate giving of themselves.

When we think of the terror and tragedy, and when we know that there are those who wish it to continue, it is easy for us to become paralyzed and overwhelmed.  But we cannot withdraw from children at these difficult times, nor greet them with silence.  Our children and students need to see that we see beyond trauma and tragedy.  They need us to help them see that even in terrible moments, adults are here to listen, protect, and forge a path for tomorrow.

About the Author
Dr. Rona Milch Novick is the Dean of the Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration at Yeshiva University.
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