We are all devastated by the news of the Norfolk tragedy.
OHEL Children’s Home and Family Services Trauma Team, led by Dr. Norman Blumenthal, Zachter Family Chair in Trauma and Crisis Response and Tzivy Reiter, OHEL Director, has broad experience in responding to meet the immediate and long terms needs of those traumatized by such events.
When tragedy touches our community, it affects all of us. It can make both children and adults feel vulnerable and confused by events that are so devastating and impossible to understand. It may trigger memories of other tragic situations that similarly affected the community or losses that people may have experienced in the past.
Everyone reacts differently to a trauma, and there is no right or wrong way to react. Individual reactions will vary and are based on a variety of factors including relative exposure to the event, relationship to the people most profoundly affected, personality, characteristics, past exposure to trauma and level of support available.
Below are some guidelines to help both children and adults cope in the aftermath of this tragedy:
- All feelings are legitimate. There is no right or wrong to react to hearing such painful news. Some people will feel increased agitation, and other people may withdraw emotionally. Common reactions are fear, sadness, anxiety, difficulty sleeping and difficulty focusing.
- Since everybody reacts differently, people close to you may not react as you do. It’s important to respect everybody’s coping style. When looking for support, look for someone who you believe is able to provide the support you need.
- Most people manage to overcome these feelings without outside professional assistance. Putting feelings into words is very therapeutic. Parents can express their own feelings of sadness and grief, and encourage children to share their feelings with them in turn.
- Children’s coping will especially be correlated with the coping of the adults around them. Therefore, it is important for parents and teachers to pay attention to their own reactions. Young children are reading your voice, tone and body language even more than your words. Be sure you know what you want to tell them.
- Do check in with your child. Ascertain what your child knows about the situation and how that information was received.
- Do provide accurate information to children, in age-appropriate language, about what is happening.
- Don’t assume that your child is worried. Ask them about their concerns and check in with them about how they are feeling.
- Do acknowledge your own feelings. This is validating to children and helps them label and identify their own feelings.
- Don’t tell your child: “Don’t be upset” or “don’t cry.” What is more helpful is to validate their feelings of anxiety, and ask “How can we help you feel safe?”
- Do be prepared for young children to hear information without much of a response and return even days later with concerns and questions.
- Do regulate your own feelings. Before you bring up the conversation, be sure that you are not unduly worried or upset. No matter how hard you try, your children will pick up on your anxiety and distress.
- Do tailor your discussion with your child to their specific history and temperament. You may want to hold discussions separately with siblings according to their age and need for information.
- Do provide activities that create opportunities for children to find meaning and mastery over the event, for example identifying good deeds that may be done, showing gratitude to rescue personnel.
- Do take care of yourself. Eat right, get the sleep that you need and try not to expose yourself with so much media coverage that you become emotionally exhausted. You will be in the best position to help your child if you feel supported and strong.
- Parents need to speak in concrete terms with pre-school aged children. They do not grasp the concept of “rare occurrences” and may need reassurance that a similar tragedy will not happen to them. Parents should show increased affection and assurance to young children during this time.
- Limit your children’s exposure to media coverage
- Young children may require extra reassurance at bedtime, a time when children’s fears may emerge. Allow children to sleep in your bed, or preferably a parent should stay in their room, but do so with a pre-established time limit.
- When reassuring children be particularly cognizant of your voice tone and body language which is often more attended to at this age than your words.
- Pre-school children may demonstrate distress through play and fantasy and sometimes may develop medical complaints or misconduct as a result. Pay attention to children’s play and give them room to work through their feelings through the safety of the play.
- Parents should tell children the truth about what occurred, using age appropriate and concrete language. It is difficult to hide or distort information since children have access to information and feel entitled to know. Elementary school-aged children are often interested in facts, especially boys.
- Parents should assess the need to give more information and don’t answer more than what was asked by the child. Parents can also answer questions by saying “I don’t know.”
- Elementary school-aged children understand the concepts of a “rare occurrence” and understand death. The message you want to give them is that what happened is rare.
- Limit your child’s exposure to media around the tragedy.
- Don’t worry if your child does not seem to be having a reaction. Everyone reacts differently and it doesn’t mean your child doesn’t care.
- Focus on the helpers – the people who have come to rescue and respond to this tragedy: first responders and community members who are helping the family and community.
- In addition to the above, themes of “why do bad things happen to good people,” may emerge, especially with adolescents. The right to have these questions should be validated and adults can agree that we don’t understand G-d’s ways.
- The closer a child is to the event the greater is the likelihood of an untoward response.
- A child who by nature is very inquisitive and interested in news events, may be more prone to consider and even internalize many of the frightening and foreboding aspects of such events.
- Children who are generally beset by anxiety or fears are also more at risk for an adverse response.
- All of these children deemed more at risk should be carefully observed for changes in their mood, behavior and even play. Such responses can even occur weeks later after a dormant period of calm.
- In such instances, professional assistance should be sought.
OHEL’s Trauma Team provides diverse assistance, from on-the-ground support, community-wide conference calls, and personalized consultation. For further advice or support, please contact Tzivy Reiter at OHEL at 1-800-603- OHEL.