As our country reels from the tragedy that took place at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, many of us are struggling to make sense of this for ourselves, let alone give explanations to our children. Having suffered a certain loss of innocence, we have a nation of children who need competent adults to step up to the plate to help them. We can all learn better ways to communicate with our kids. Here are a few more thoughts on the matter.
Your children are watching you. The American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress (AAETS) maintains that during times of crisis, parents and caregivers must work to distinguish between their own psychological needs and those of their children. This is hard to do when we’ve all been traumatized. I recommend that you separate your feelings into grief versus fear. Since grief is usually related to an event that has already happened, it has some boundaries. But fear pertains to the unknown future which knows no limits. It may be best to set aside your fears when sharing feelings of grief with your kids.
Children look to us for emotional stability. As a role model for emotional stability, experts encourage parents and caregivers to be calm and foster an atmosphere of acceptance. The AAETS urges adults not to be critical of clinginess or other regressive behaviors such as nightmares, bed-wetting or other physical complaints, but to foster a warm, open, and accepting atmosphere where children can express and work through their grief. Experts warn parents not to be overly emotional because children look to adults for emotional stability. Kids need to be able to lean on their parents’ shoulders, feel protected, and not criticized A different set of problems arise when parents lean on their kids for emotional support.
Take time to talk with your kids. This is a 3 step process. First, approach your child on an age-appropriate level to spend time with them. With younger children, invite them to play a board game or join them in their favorite activity. For older kids, you might visit them in their rooms and listen to their favorite music. Second, once you feel connected, extend an open line of communication by inviting your kids to freely share their feelings or concerns. Previous traumatic experiences may stir up painful emotions that need to be revisited. Third, your role is just to listen without judging and without feeling like you must fix things for your child.
There is a difference between trauma and post-traumatic stress. Dr. Steven Berkowitz says that it’s not just the event that makes something traumatic, but how your child interprets that event. Each child reacts differently based on individual factors (the child’s history, experiences, and biological vulnerability), event factors (the child’s physical and emotional distance from the event), and aftermath factors which occur following the actual trauma when the child is vulnerable to being further traumatized. This is the time period when children need emotional support from those around them to be able to process what has happened. Parents should also monitor their kids for signs of suicide, substance abuse, disturbances in eating and sleeping, and attitudes which are excessively angry, aggressive, or dismissive of the event, and seek professional help sooner rather than later.
Dr. Harold Koplewicz of the Child Mind Institute further suggests that we can help children by introducing the concept of resilience. Stories from other traumas, such as 9/11, shift the focus of attention from tragedy to bravery. You can help children feel safer by talking about our nation’s response to 9/11 when people from all over the country rallied to help New Yorkers, when leaders of our country took steps to prevent this from happening again, and as a result, people of all ages became wiser, learned better ways to protect themselves, and found new ways to bounce back from difficult times.
©Copyright, 2013, Jane R. Rosen-Grandon. All rights reserved.
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