I was 11 years old, sitting in my fifth grade class in Detroit, Michigan at Louis Pasteur Elementary School. My teacher shushed us as the principal’s voice came over the loud speaker informing us that President Kennedy was shot. Our class sat in stunned silence, and then as the reality of the principal’s words took hold, some of us began to cry.
Before too long, we learned that President Kennedy was dead. I remember that a friend of mine and I went to the girls’ restroom. We were crying and very upset. My friend was worried because her brother was in the armed services (can’t remember which branch). She was concerned that he would now go to Viet Nam, because we were going to have a new president. More prophetic words could not have been spoken!
Back then, we didn’t discuss things with our parents. Instead, we overheard them talking. Whatever was their “truth” became our “truth.” Newscasters such as Walter Cronkite and Huntley and Brinkley gave us our “truth.” We would talk about current events in school with our teachers, but there was never any in-depth discussion. I remember of course, being out of school for President Kennedy’s funeral and watching John John salute his father’s casket.
In the years to follow, we watched our society become more violent. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. Bobby Kennedy was assassinated. The Viet Nam War escalated and became a daily feature of my adolescent life. Still, I don’t recall talking to my parents about the war, etc. Although, I do remember my father discussing with someone else that the Beatles were not going to last and the band was just a one-hit wonder!
It is different today with our children. Many of us, as responsible parents want to discuss issues and listen to our children’s opinions. We want to make sure that our children receive the help they need if they struggle emotionally and physically. As adults, we are horrified to learn of planes crashing into the Twin Towers in New York City, and the Pentagon in Washington D.C. We are horrified as we hear or read the news advising us of suicide bombers, kidnapped and murdered children, or natural disasters like hurricanes, tsunamis, mud slides and forest fires. We most certainly became horrified to learn that an American soldier born and raised in America, chose to kill and wound fellow soldiers at Ft. Hood, Texas. If it is horrifying to us and difficult for us to attach logic and reason to such heinous acts, how can we expect our children to not be affected by what they see or hear?!
Parents should not rely solely on teachers and counselors for helping their children learn how to cope with life’s calamities. It is important for parents to talk to their children, answering questions and calming fears. Because it is a part of growing up, children will become fearful from time to time. Sometimes, they don’t know how to express themselves, or won’t say anything because they don’t want to burden their parents.
Children however, do not have to communicate verbally for parents to recognize confusion, anxiety or fear. Through age-related, acting-out behaviors, children can demonstrate emotional difficulty. Impact of a tragic event can also determine a child’s reaction, especially if the tragedy was personally experienced, occurred in the child’s community, at school, to a friend or to a relative. Reactions may appear shortly after, or days and weeks following the tragedy.
The New York State Office of Mental Health published a “Crisis Counseling Guide” [for] Age-Related Reactions of Children to Disaster,” 2002. The ways in which children react to disaster will depend upon the age of the child. The following are some of the age-related reactions and ways in which parents can help their children:
*Preschool children 1 – 5 years of age: may experience fear of the dark, bed-wetting, fear of strangers, thumb-sucking, upset stomach and clingy behavior. These children may require extra attention and affection. Playtime with puppets, drawing pictures, or story-telling can encourage the child to express thoughts and feelings.
*School Age children 5 – 11 years of age: may be irritable, clingy, regress in behavior, whine, have physical complaints, no desire to attend school, or experience nightmares.
Discussions, asking questions and if the child is uncomfortable talking personally about the trauma, it’s okay to ask how he/she thought other children felt about the event. A parent needs to exercise a great deal of patience and provide some structure, but this may be a time to be less demanding about chores and other home responsibilities.
*Preadolescence 11 – 14 years of age: may experience loss of appetite, difficulty sleeping, physical complaints, problems in school due to general apathy and loss of interest in school subjects, as well as fighting or withdrawal from peers. Parents should engage their children in discussion. Structure is important, with fewer demands, at this time. Additional attention and consideration of a child’s needs may be necessary.
*Adolescence 14 – 18 years of age: may experience physical complaints such as headaches, upset stomach, difficulty concentrating in school, irritability, aggression, isolation or withdrawal from others. Discussion in which the parent listens and encourages the adolescent to express opinions is important, as is encouragement to resume enjoyable activities, such as sports, drill team, etc.
According to the National Organization for Victim Assistance, Washington, D.C., (October 1987), “it is important to talk to children about the tragedy – to address the irrationality and suddenness of disaster. Children need to be allowed to ventilate their feelings, as do adults, and they have a similar need to have those feelings validated.”
All children want to feel safe and secure about the future. Reassurance is very important. It’s okay for parents to talk about the fears they experienced as children and to offer words of encouragement, as well as extra hugs. Answer the questions asked and provide as much factual information as the child requires. No one has to have all of the answers, just a willingness to offer a forum for the exchange of thoughts, feelings and even theories about why such an event occurred. In this way, we help our children learn how to recover and develop better coping skills for the unexpected in life.