When a community tragedy or traumatic event occurs, even those not at the center of the incident are likely to be affected. In my community, for example, three teenagers were kidnapped Thursday night on their way home from boarding school for the weekend. One of my children knows one of the three boys, my other children don't. Nevertheless, all of us are strongly affected by the event, which happened within walking distance of our home.
It is well-nigh impossible to shield children from sad or tragic events, as much as we, their parents, would love to do so. Our world of 24/7 news broadcasts and Internet news sites makes it impossible to ban the news even from our own living spaces. In addition to this fact, the news is more graphic than ever before, as jaded audiences need the bar for violence and sex continuously raised to forestall the possibility of boredom setting in. Meanwhile, technology makes everything immediate and palpable.
To that last point, it should be added that people have smartphones even in the deadest parts of the third world. Stonings and beheadings are regularly recorded by phone and uploaded to YouTube. It can take a while for webmasters to note a flagged video and make it unavailable to youngsters.
Meanwhile, there's Facebook. Yes, there's an age of consent. But it's not like anyone is actually checking to see how old children actually are when they sign up for social media accounts. You child is bound to see stuff you wish he wouldn't ever see in his news feed. Terrible things. Things happening close to home.
In short, you can't stick a paper bag over your kid's head and protect him until he's oh, say, 21 years old or so. Nor would most of us want to do so. Technology is, aside from being graphic and scary at times, a marvelous thing. Of course, you can still try to set reasonable limits and create rules for the appropriate use of technology, "try" being the operative word.
But I think there's a better, more appropriate focus for parents and caregivers and that is to focus on helping kids work through their feelings when confronted with icky, nasty, difficult, or traumatic situations. I say this as a mother of many children and a staff member of the Kars4Kids car donation program that supports educational initiatives for children. Kids respond well to outreach and support during difficult situations.
We all know that bad stuff regularly happens to good people, as much as we might wish otherwise. And even when kids don't visibly show they are disturbed by such events, they're feeling the feelings. That's true whether the event is on a par with the kidnapping of three teenage boys in our area, the Boston Marathon Bombing, a local fire at a beloved children's library or the suicide of a teenaged neighbor.
Kids sometimes think that burying feelings or showing nonchalance is a sign of maturity. They may use all the creative energy at their disposal to hide their feelings. So it's up to you to see beyond the brave façade and to respond to their hidden distress. Here's how:
A parent's emotions serve as a barometer for a child. When a parent is cool, calm and collected, a child knows that all is right with the world. When parents, on the other hand, are anxious and upset, their children become fearful.
Even parents feel out of control sometimes, or even simply anxious or upset. When an upsetting event occurs in your community, seek help from an understanding adult. This could simply be a chat with a like-minded friend via Facebook. A few minutes of touching base can really help. And it also prevents you from showing your child your frenzied and discomfited feelings.
Last night, two friends PM'ed me via Facebook to talk about the kidnapping. One friend told me how she visited her father's grave and cried to him to intercede. The other friend described breaking into tears at odd times, while trying to go about his daily business. He knew the parents and grandparents of one of the abducted children and told me about them, what wonderful people they are. I talked about hoping it was over by the next day so I wouldn't have to write another word about the event (a doomed hope, apparently).
Watch how you speak on the phone around your child and don't type with him hanging over your shoulder if you want to write something freaky or scary. That doesn't mean you show no emotion at all, of course not. Instead, you acknowledge the difficulties and your feelings without overwhelming your kids.
When I felt weepy over the past few days, I did so out of sight of my children. They don't need to see that. They know it's serious and they see me blogging on the subject and sharing news items. They see me saying psalms for the missing boys and praying for them, too. At the same time, they see me doing the laundry, preparing lunch, and checking to see they've done their homework.
Life from their vantage point is still predictable, steady and under control. It's a comfort during this difficult time.
Offer Important Information
Knowing the facts of what's going on is important. Ignorance breeds fear whereas knowledge is power. Give your children the age-appropriate facts of what is happening. Let them know that it is the job of the media to play up the facts and not to be fooled by what they see and hear on TV or on the Internet.
In terms of the kidnapping in my community, I briefly told my children the basic facts surrounding what had happened. I also told them about the various ongoing efforts that had been set in motion to obtain the release of the three boys. I told my children all this in a matter of fact manner and answered their questions as simply as possible in a truthful way.
Sometimes your children will be fearful in spite of your best efforts. This is absolutely normal. In the situation of the local kidnapping, my children naturally worry they could be kidnapped, too. Register their fear, acknowledge their concerns. Talk about what they might do to keep safe. Lather, rinse, repeat whenever necessary. Be there for them.
It's good to focus on the positives of the situation. The kidnapping created a sense of unity in our area, for instance. The community gathered for prayers in a local park and at our synagogue. Buses were arranged to take members of the community to pray at the Western Wall. Many people took upon themselves good deeds on behalf of the captives.
In times of adversity, there is a tendency to be careful, kind, and gentle with the people we meet, at home, at work, and in the supermarket. It's a beautiful thing to witness.There are positives to be found in the darkest experiences, if we are only willing to see them. Share this concept with your children.
Don't Add To Their Burden
Some parents think that being truthful is the most important quality in parenting so they show their children the full force of their anguish in times of tragedy. Don't do it. It's too much for a child's slim shoulders to bear. They have a hard enough time of it. Let them be children. You be there for them.
That's your job.
That doesn't mean adopting an attitude of false cheer. There's no need for that. Be serious. Just don't blubber and overwhelm them. Stay in control. Be the adult.
Another aspect of not adding to a child's burden is about accepting their feelings, even if, at times, a child's emotional responses seems out of whack. One of my children tried to brush off discussions of the kidnapping, saying, "Yeah, yeah. I know all about it."
But later that night, he came to me for a hug, something he is otherwise "too old" to do.
A comparable situation would be the child that giggles as you explain death. Stay serious, don't berate your child for being inappropriate. It's just a way of letting out the pent-up tensions inherent in an unfamiliar and uncomfortable situation.
When tragedy strikes, we often feel helpless. For instance, I can't really do anything about the three boys that have been kidnapped in my community. So I spread the word by blogging about them. I use the hashtag: #BringBackOurBoys when sharing posts or tweeting. I pray for their safety. These are positive choices on my part and taking control in this positive direction helps me cope with my anxiety about the welfare of the captives and their families.
I extend the same possibility of choice to my children whenever possible. Opportunities for choice do not necessarily have to be related to a specific tragedy or traumatic current event. For instance, today I asked my son what he would prefer for lunch: spaghetti al olio or sesame noodles. Simple choices such as these can help adults and children alike feel capable and in control of their immediate environment.
I can't promise my children a happy ending for the kidnapped boys but I can hug them and spend time with them. Affection is a form of reassurance. Offer them as much affection as they want, without going nutso and overboard on them. That would just alarm them.
Model Appropriate Behavior
Tragedy and trauma are stressful. By remaining calm and in control, you offer a behavior model for your children for appropriate behavior during times of stress. That's a huge deal.
This is something I keep in mind whenever I feel like venting anger over a situation I cannot control. Having a tantrum in front of the kiddies is a no-no. So is going all weepy on them. Wouldn't you rather them see you calm and strong in the face of adversity? Wouldn't you rather they learn to remain calm and strong during stressful situations? I know I would.
If it's very difficult for you to remain calm, take deep breaths or take a walk around the block. Adopt some sort of coping measure, whatever it takes. Show your child that stress doesn't have to result in a lack of self-control.
Teach Them Recovery
There comes a time after every tragedy when we must move on. Even when a loved one dies, we are allowed to be happy again at some point in the future, to learn how to live in a new and satisfying way without that person. It can seem somehow cold or callous to a child. So you'll have to show him how.
Maybe you'll buy your child a treat they don't get to have so often. Or you'll bring home a leaf with a beautiful shape that you found on the front lawn. Perhaps you'll put on a record you both like and sing the songs together in harmony. Whatever you can do that works best for moving on in a positive direction is what you should do.
In the case of our local kidnapping, we naturally hope and pray for good news. But my children have been raised with the knowledge that their people have outlived every enemy that ever oppressed our nation. They have a strong foundation of both history and faith, and many good models for behavior in the community. They have the tools for coping and recovery at their fingertips and I will make sure they make good use of them. As a mother, that's my job.
And you'll never see me slacking off.
Follow Varda Epstein on Twitter: www.twitter.com/epavard