The horrific attack on Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Congregation has shaken the nation and the Jewish world to their core. When a person has taken the life of another, and when homicide erupts among our brethren, the effect on us has a discernible and traumatizing impact. As parents, clergy or educators, we are now confronted with the challenge of providing support and guidance to the most vulnerable members of our community—our young people.
Teenagers and children learning of such devastating news may experience a broad range of reactions, which are a normal part of the post-trauma shock waves. They may display changes, at least in the aftermath interval, in their comfort and safety senses, in their ideas and thoughts and images, in their physical wellbeing, in their moods, and in their conduct and interpersonal style. Young adults may even struggle with existential and spiritual concerns. They may experience rage, or they may feel broken and betrayed by their sense on insecurity here in the United States of America. They may express fright, horror, or stunned withdrawn silence. They are going to hurt, each in his or her own way, as we adults are hurting, too.
As the Director of Interventions & Community Education at Project Chai, the crisis intervention, trauma and bereavement department of Chai Lifeline, our response to such crises is clear. When our young people encounter loss, we open a dialogue, we listen to the child’s thoughts and observe their emotional expression, and we validate their personal reaction. Depending upon their age and maturity, and upon the questions which they pose, we can offer information, we might correct misunderstandings, we can clarify concepts, and we can offer support that we will continue to be open to them as they struggle to cope.
The following guidelines will help you address a child or teenager’s reaction to such traumatic events.
- Talk with them. Do not assume that they will speak up if they need to, but rather be proactive. Ask them if they have heard about the event. Encourage them to dialogue with you about what they know, and what they do not know. At a level, pace and degree which is appropriate to their age and maturity, respond to questions they may have, and correct misinformation which might be troubling them, and give them reassurance as to their safety.
- A parent’s job is not to act as judge and jury, but when the facts are verified, a parent, just as a rabbi or a teacher, retains their responsibility to educate a child about right and wrong. Assert to the pondering child that murder is wrong. Assert that this is not our way of life. Confirm with the child that this is not the Torah way at all, ever. Focus less on the person(s) involved in the crime and more on the concept. Refrain from editorial statements about the person(s) which only serve to distract from the issues which may need your attention. Caution against needless rumoring and gossip, which likewise distracts from the more important psychological issues and reactions.
- Steer clear of misleading moralizing, disciplinary, or judgmentally-toned messages such as “now you know why we are not allowed to get angry at people” or “every time you embarrass another person it is just like murder.” Now is not the moment to inspire nor scold your child in any way. Now is the time to support and nurture them and console their fears and sadness. Stay focused on the present.
- Assure that your child is maintaining a routine, including eating, sleeping, school attendance and other responsibilities. Structure is healing. Normality is soothing. Be patient and gentle but help them return to regular functioning.
- Younger children need to know that they are safe and that it is safe for them to voice their feelings. Older children need to ask their questions and be given short answers that satisfy and are sensible. Older teenagers need to voice their philosophical musings and to be heard, while also presenting them with alternative ways of approaching matters. Avoid arguing, disapproving, scolding or guilt-tripping when a child shares their views. Help a child see that what they are experiencing is a normal reaction (unless of course you are candidly worried about a child’s strange behavior; when you are uncertain about how to understand a specific reaction, consult with an expert, or reach out to Project Chai’s crisis team.).
- Offer encouragement. A person’s initial reactions will change with time, and it is helpful to point out to a child that what they are now experiencing is a normal stage, and that they will likely have different thoughts and feelings and attitudes as the days pass. Be an open door for each child to speak with you and check in with them regularly. Do not assume that a child’s silence means that they are not struggling. Do not “pathologize” and assume that a child’s reactions are indicative of deeper problems.
- Allow your children to have their spiritual and religious reactions but aim to help them regulate their thoughts and behaviors rather than adopt extreme changes. Offer them the opportunity to discuss their confusion with a trusted religious authority or mentor. Address spiritual matters yourself, provided that you are able to tune in to what your children are dealing with rather than clouding matters with your own internal agendas. You are there to guide them, to educate them, to encourage and inspire them. That is the role of parents and educators.
- If you are a teacher, youth worker, rabbi or guide, children and their parents will likely turn to you for clarity, to shed light on both facts and on forming perspective, and for psychological and interpersonal tips for coping. Even if you too are in turmoil and emotional upheaval because of the extent of the tragedy, be there for those who look up to you. Validate feelings. Listen to thoughts and fears and worries. Tolerate their rage, their disgust and their trepidation. Accept their angry reactions. Offer them the powerful support of “circling their wagons” at this fearsome time by reaching forth to one another, being caring and supportive, acknowledging and identifying with the pain and dread of their fellow students, their friends, their community. Do not insist that they “be strong” yet model for them your own faith and your conviction that there is grief, but also justice in our world.
The ways in which a child is guided through a crisis or trauma will shape the ways in which they will respond to subsequent life challenges. Your words, your demeanor, your honesty, your sincerity and your respectfulness can teach them resiliency and can equip them with the tools and skills for coping and handling the stresses they will face later in life.
Rabbi Dr. Dovid Fox is the Director of Interventions & Community Education at Project Chai, the crisis intervention, trauma and bereavement department of Chai Lifeline. If you are experiencing a crisis, please contact Project Chai’s 24-hour hotline at 855-3-CRISIS or email firstname.lastname@example.org.