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The Informed Parent

In The Face Of Tragedy

by Carolyn Warnemuende, M.S.
Published on Oct. 01, 2001
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As I write this, it's been four days since the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Like much of America, I have gone through the week in numbness and grief. I have wanted to gather those near and dear to me into a safe place and not let them go.

As parents of young children, you have been faced with the awesome responsibility of finding answers to unanswerable questions, of supporting your children as they struggle with concerns about their safety, and with accepting your own feelings of vulnerability.

Life is beginning to resume as this week comes to a close. Radio and television stations returned to some of their regular programming this evening. Citizens began to venture away from their homes. We do not know what the repercussions of this week’s horrors will be. Regardless of what happens, these events are not likely to be the only tragedies that your children will observe or experience as they grow into adulthood. In this article we will discuss five parenting skills that will assist you and your children when going through unthinkable challenges.

Talk, talk, talk

Talking about a tragedy begins the healing process. Some parents resist talking about the event because they believe it causes greater fear and sadness. It is not the talking that causes the feelings. It is the event itself. Encourage children to tell their story. Where were they when they heard the news of the event? What is the first thing that they remember feeling? What did they do? Who did they first talk to? Talking about the event will evoke feelings. Children may cry or express anger. This is healthy. Talking about the event and experiencing their feelings allows them to process it and put it into some kind of perspective for themselves. It distances them from the initial shock. It provides the opportunity for them to begin moving on with their lives.

Not talking with children about tragedy keeps the picture of the event and the feelings surrounding it in the forefront of their minds. It becomes difficult for them to move beyond what has occurred. Do you remember how hard it was to keep a secret when you were young? How you constantly thought about it and about not revealing it? Not talking about tragic situations makes them a secret. The secret can become all consuming.

Keep Your Words and Behavior Congruent

Sometimes when we talk to children we say one thing when we are feeling something else. Our behavior always speaks louder than our words. If our words and feelings don’t match, the children will pick up the feelings. Has your child ever said to you, “Why are you angry, Mom?” If you responded, “I’m not angry” when you were, undoubtedly she said, “Yes you are. I know when you’re angry.”

The same thing happens when we are not frank about feelings of fear or sadness. Our children know we are feeling something that we are not sharing with them. Following this week’s attacks, many parents have not wanted to increase their children’s fears and sadness, so have been hesitant to share their own. In the face of tragedy, be both honest and assuring. “I feel sad and scared, too. We will feel sad for awhile, then get better. And you can know that I will always keep you as safe as I possibly can, and that our leaders will keep our country as safe as they can.”

Accept Regression in Behaviors

Following tragedy children may revert to behaviors they had outgrown. These behaviors can include clinging, fear of being alone, fear of going to bed, thumb-sucking, carrying a blanket, or bed-wetting. This regression is not uncommon when dealing with tragic events.

As your family moves through the healing process, let your youngsters know where you will be during the day. When they leave for school say, “Today I’ll be at my office until 2:00 o’clock, then I’m going to the dentist. I’ll see you about 4:00 o’clock.” Keep as strictly to the time that you say you will pick them up as you can. If you are going to be more than a few minutes late, call the caregiver and ask her to tell your children when you will be there.

Returning to bedtime rituals from an earlier stage helps relieve bedtime anxiety. At first children may feel a little embarrassed about this. If this happens, you might say, “I know you think you are too old for this now, but I enjoy spending a little extra time with you.”

Have quiet time and a story before bed. Lie with your child on her bed for a bit. Cuddle. When you leave the room tell her you will come back to check on her in 10 minutes. Be sure that you do. Your children will appreciate this attention.

If thumb sucking or carrying a blanket recurs, ignore it. When life returns to a more normal state, these behaviors will once again fade. They serve as a security for the child in an insecure time.

When children wet their beds, handle it in a straightforward, unemotional manner. Assure the child that you know it was an accident. If the child is old enough, have her help you change the bedding. Remind older children to use the toilet right before bed. Keep young children on a regular toilet training schedule. Cease all liquids at 6:00 in the evening.

Limit Television Exposure

When the media covers a tragic event, pictures of the event are shown and re-shown. Young children don’t comprehend replays of the original event and assume that the event is recurring. Older children can become obsessed with watching the event over and over. Either of these situations heightens anxiety. I believe that young children should not see pictures of a tragic event. Watch the news after the children have gone to bed. Limit a news show to once a day for older children. If your family uses television for nightly entertainment, use a family video instead of network broadcasts. Keep the television off and read together or play board games.

Dealing With Helplessness

Feeling helpless in the face of tragedy is common. Citizens want to do something to help in relieving the suffering of others. If the tragedy has affected us personally, we often feel at a loss as to how to continue on with life.

There are ways that families can relieve some of the feelings of helplessness:

  • Donate to a relief organization. Donations can be in the form of money or material goods. Explain to your children that the donations may go to the victims of the tragedy or to people in your own community who need help.
  • Be kind in words and actions. Talk about kindness to your children. Let them know that when they are kind to someone, that person is more likely to be kind to someone else. Kindness creates unity.
  • Spiritual practices. If your family uses prayer, saying prayers can relieve feelings of helplessness. If you do not pray, having a quiet time where you think loving thoughts about the victims of tragedy and their families can be comforting.
  • Gratitude. Spend time recognizing and being thankful for all the relief workers assisting in the event. Recognize with thankfulness any positive steps your community takes to help its citizens through the period of grief. Be thankful for whatever is positive in your family’s life and in your community.

When talking with your children about their and your feelings of helplessness, talk about how even though you may not be able to go to the scene of the tragedy and assist, that what we do and say affects everyone that we come into contact with. Proactive and positive words and actions ultimately effect everyone.

Outside Help

Following a tragic event, talking to the pediatrician or a family counselor can assist in working through strong feelings. You may want assistance in learning to deal with your own feelings, both for your own healing and for support in assisting your child. If you or your child experience feelings that interfere with daily life for an extended period of time, be sure to seek the help of a professional.

None of us know how we will respond when confronted with a tragic event. This past week I have heard people say that they felt guilty if they smiled or laughed. They weren’t sure whether they should engage in a fun activity when so many others were suffering. These kinds of comments and feelings often haunt people in challenging times. Human beings are resilient. We have the capacity to feel a variety of feelings regardless of the situations in which we find ourselves. Let yourself feel as many feelings as deeply as you can. Even in the face of tragedy life goes on. As the parent, your children will look to you for guidance. Let them know by your actions that it is okay to feel scared or sad. It is just as okay to feel happy and joyful. Healing takes time. Eventually life will once again hold more days of joy than of sorrow.




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