Tips For Parents: Helping Children And Adolescents Face National Tragedy And Personal Loss

Sept. 14, 2001

by Lori Scott Fogleman

These tips are provided by Helen Harris and Dr. Diana Garland, School of Social Work, Baylor University. They can be reached at (254) 710-6400.

The headlines scream "Horror" and "War." Televisions broadcast continuous images of fire and destruction. The words are of death and fear and violence. Our children hear the words, see the images and watch our stricken faces for reassurance. We struggle with knowing how to help our children when terror strikes. These tips are not exhaustive but can help your children in these difficult times.

Children

Children need information. Tell your children in age-appropriate language the simple facts. "Four planes were used by people to hurt other people. The planes crashed into several large buildings. Many people were killed including some people who were trying to help save others. Many people are sad and upset about this. That is why you see it on the news all of the time and that is why everyone seems so upset and sad." Be simple and direct, explaining things at their level. Children's understanding of death grows as they grow. Children under the age of 6 or 7 do not yet understand the permanence of death. They may be confused that others are so upset. They respond to the feelings of the adults and older children around them without understanding the source of the pain. The presence of an adult who is able to comfort the child and direct them to normal activity is important. Children older than 8- to 9-years-old have an awareness of the permanence of death. They frequently have questions about what happens after death. Parents should share with these children information that death means that the body doesn't work anymore. Share what you believe about life after death.

Children need interpretation. Don't allow children to watch these events on television or listen to them on the radio alone! Watch or listen with them. Ask what they are thinking and feeling, and share your own thoughts and feelings with them. If you cry, explain what is making you cry. Ask them what makes them sad or angry. It is okay for children to see your feelings; they will know even if you don't tell them. Give them ways of understanding that it is all right to be sad for the hurts of others.

Children need routines and your presence. As much as you feel drawn to the television and newspapers and discussions with other adults, remember that your children need things to be as normal as possible, and they need your presence with them. Spend time with them in homework, in play, in discussion. Turn the television or radio off unless you can sit down and watch with them; do not let it run continuously.

Children need reassurance and the truth. The uncertainty produced by these events is reflected both on the media and in the faces of adults that children trust. Tell your child the truth. "This is scary because it could happen to anyone. But we believe it will not happen here. And you need to know that if it were to happen here, we would get through it together as a family. God is with people there who are hurting. And God is with us. God says we will never be alone, even in the scariest of times."

Children need security. Crisis and tragedy are stressful for both children and adults. Children in crisis need warm comforting foods, warm clothes or a jacket, quiet, gentle physical touch. A child who is grieving or struggling with a crisis may need an extra blanket at night. Pray with them for the people who are sad. Pray for God's presence with all of us. Pray for national leaders. There is security in asking God to handle what we feel helpless to handle alone.

Children need context. Children will remember other losses and grief. They will feel strong feelings about this event and the discussions of it and will need help putting it into context. Remind your children about the resilience of the nation, of your family, of each of them. We have confronted difficult days before. We will stand together. We will survive. The feelings will get better with time and with expression and with presence.

Children need understanding. Children grieve in spurts. The intensity of shock and grief is profound and can only be tolerated for brief periods of time. Children will express their anger or sadness or confusion and will then return to some normal activity including play, television, reading, etc. You may think they are finished, and then they come back with a whole new set of questions -- or the same ones. These shifts from grief to play and back again are normal and should not be interpreted as a lack of caring or sensitivity on the part of children. Be ready for them to come back again and again with the same questions. Just keep talking.

For Adolescents

Adolescents need all the above, too! They need information, interpretation, and security, but they are ready for conversations that are more adult. They also need normalcy. They need you to watch television with them, too. We all need others to talk through what we are seeing and experiencing. And then--turn off the television! Do not let it keep running.

Adolescents need you to listen to their strong feelings, even when they are hard for you. They easily feel out of control when a tragedy like this happens. They believe in justice, and so they may express rage and question where God is at a time like this. Their thoughts about what our nation needs to do may be quite different than yours. They may argue for pacifism, or for retaliation. Let them express their feelings and thoughts, encouraging them that you want to know what they think. You may find it harder than usual to listen to their thoughts and feelings, because you are upset, too. If you can do so, however, they will then be willing to listen to your thoughts, too.

Adolescents need to talk with peers; the youth group in your congregation needs to provide a time and place for talking about what we are all going through. In addition, encourage your congregation to have a time of praying and sharing and talking together. Include adolescents in this community conversation and prayer time, both to listen to others and to share their own thoughts and feelings.

All of Us

All of us need to do something -- community prayer meetings, giving blood (or going with parents who are giving blood), making and sending cards and messages to survivors, sending encouraging notes to leaders and rescuers.

All of us need hope. Parents have the perspective of time to share with children. While today may be a grim day and a sad day, there are many good days ahead. We have hope for healing. We have hope for peace beyond what any human government can bring. We have hope for courage in the face of difficulty. We have hope for community.

All of us need faith. At the end of all discussions where tragedy is involved, children more than anyone else know that faith is the essential tool of survival. Parents must use this opportunity to model faith that helps us not despair. We must talk about our prayer lives, our relationship with God, our confidence in the goodness of God. We must model the concepts of forgiveness and grace and our ultimate belief that our fate rests in the hands of a loving God.

Looking for more news from Baylor University?