Help Kids Cope with Loss and Fear
Routines, quiet time, and acknowledgement of life's beauty will help your family move forward.
1. Cultivate stability with lots of love, consistent discipline, and patience. Whether it's the death of a loved one, divorce of parents, a tragedy like 9/11, the war in Iraq, or continued terrorist threats, a stable home environment and honest talks with your kids can make all the difference. In the face of high stress or trauma, keep your home life as "normal" as possible. Let your kids know you love them and that you are always there for them. Minimize change as much as you can. Continue with usual bonding activities like reading at bedtime. Consider adding some pleasant surprises like your child's favorite dinner or a meal out at a kid-fun restaurant. Don't be tempted to let house rules slide into chaos in troubled times. Practice being consistent in your discipline, being authoritative -- not authoritarian -- yet flexible and understanding.
2. Consider carefully the imagery your children are exposed to. Mimi Doe, author of 10 Principles for Spiritual Parenting (HarperCollins Publishers, 1998), suggests limiting TV images of tragedy, especially for young ones. Instead, turn to less-intrusive media like radio. When kids are upset, encourage them to dwell on positive images and engage in comforting and familiar rituals. You might even begin some new traditions. To memorialize the loss of life on 9/11 without delving into the disturbing imagery, you might light seven candles: one for each of the four planes, two for the Twin towers, and one for the Pentagon. This ritual might lead you into a family discussion about future hope and the meaning of life, or another meaning significant to your family.
3. Answer grief and trauma with a secure foundation at home. Children experience grief whenever they suffer a significant loss. It could be anything from losing a parent at the World Trade Center to losing a friend who moves away. And just like adults, children go through the stages of denial, anger, guilt, and acceptance. Dr. Salomon Grimberg, a Dallas child psychiatrist, reminds parents that providing a sense of security at home serves children well during times of trauma. "The growth and development of children needs to take place in an ambience of security," Grimberg says. "Only security will, more likely than not, provide an internal sense of stability that children will carry within them the rest of their lives." Make time to be with your child. Instead of grabbing a cup of coffee in the morning, sit down to cereal together and enjoy a chat over breakfast. Ask about your child's upcoming day and encourage her to talk freely. Show real interest in your child's life and the way she is reacting to a stressful situation. Above all, let your child know how much you love him. To find more useful information about helping kids cope with trauma, check out the U.S. Department of Education's parental resources on the Web.
4. Talk as a family and listen to your kids. Communication is more important than ever in difficult times. Grimberg points out that children need to be provided with an understanding that is appropriate for their level of development. The younger the child, the simpler the explanation. "In the best of circumstances, children have parents whom they trust and who they approach when they feel uneasy," he says. Be available to answer all questions your child asks, or gently draw out information when your child seems disturbed by something. Let your child express fears and worries. And really listen. When responding, author Doe emphasizes the importance of being unbiased and reassuring. Your answers are an opportunity to model tolerance and courage and to show that you are always there for your child. Demonstrating integrity when your children turn to you for guidance will teach your kids good character. It will also help them feel secure that they can turn to you for wisdom.
5. Face the facts and experience the emotions. A way to cope with fear is to face facts. The best way to deal with grief, psychologists say, is to experience it. "Fear and grief are natural responses and they need to be accepted and experienced as such rather than magnified or avoided," Grimberg says. A year after 9/11 or any loss or crisis, many children will have moved on, but some will not. How children react to trauma depends on their temperament, their caregivers' attunement to their needs, and the child's stage of development. Children's responses are likely to be influenced by the attitude in the home -- including the mindset of the people they love most. "If the family lives in fear, with hatred, without compassion, the children will likely see things filtered through their family's perceptions, even what they learn from the news or at school," Grimberg says. Model the kind of emotional and spiritual health you would like to see in your child. When children are with you in the car, breathe deeply instead of venting anger verbally. Respond to a rude store clerk with kindness. Instead of reacting with fear to the Muslim world, check out a library book to learn about Islam together with your children.
6. Acknowledge fear and respond with confidence and trust. It is important to acknowledge your child's fears, whether it's the dark, the monster in the closet, or the threat of another terrorist attack. Helping your child put her fears into words is beneficial. The more a child can successfully communicate his feelings, the less threatening those feelings will feel. Try to communicate your calm control over the situation. Assure your child that you understand the problem and won't allow any harm to come. But try not to sugarcoat the dire or bluff your way through the inexplicable. "Life holds many mysteries, and children need to learn early that we do not have answers for many questions," says Grimberg. "They need to learn that we need to live with trust about the unknown because it has always existed and always will."
7. Keep connected. As much as possible during a troubled time, author Doe suggests connecting with others. Kids long for connections and cling to the comforting rhythm of the ordinary. When all else seems to be in upheaval, just sitting down to the dinner table as a family or keeping to your normal schedule of going to temple or church can anchor distressed minds and hearts. Teach your children the discipline of focusing on the positive; connecting with good thoughts will give them mental and spiritual strength.
8. Remember beauty and be grateful for life. That can be hard when senseless acts of violence and hatred take innocent lives, when an accident cuts short a life, or a horrific disease slowly steals a loved one. Grimberg's prescription for combating the ills of the world is a big dose of beauty: "Despite its horrors, life is extraordinary and very, very beautiful," he says. "Its beauty is in front of us at every step, if we are willing to let ourselves see it and appreciate it. From time to time, horrible events that cannot be stopped take place, but that is the rare thing. In the end, there are many more beautiful experiences. Instill in your children an appreciation of beauty by helping them notice it. Go for a walk together and take turns pointing out the wondrous details of nature. Take a drive in the country at sunset and enjoy the glories of the changing colors across the landscape. From small miracles like changing leaves, dew on grass, grains of sand, or a newborn calf, your children will learn a large appreciation for the gift of life."