Coping with Life-Shattering Events
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Coping with Life-Shattering Events contributor Ava Siegler, Ph.D. offers advice on helping kids cope with fear and sadness after life-shattering events.

Steps to Take Now

Dr. Ava

It's our job as parents to protect our children from the dangers in our world. But as the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon have tragically shown us, catastrophe is out of our control. Nevertheless, we still need to try to prevent our children (and ourselves) from being left with a legacy of fear and despair. Here are steps you can take, both now and later on, to help your child cope with this tragedy.

Turn off the news. Don't keep the radio or television on all day long. Children -- particularly those under age 8 -- are highly impressionable, and easily overwhelmed by vivid visual imagery.

Don't discuss your fears. Discuss your worst fears with other adults, not your children. Your kids need to be able to turn to you for whatever stability you can provide after these shattering experiences. Hearing your fears about what could still happen just frightens them.

Do talk about it. Use plain talk to help your kids cope. Talk is healing, and repeating the story over and over again helps to relieve the pain. Ongoing conversations give your kids a chance to be heard, and you a chance to monitor and address their reactions.

Hugging is good. Let your children cling to and cuddle with you. Children are reassured by physical affection, and hugs offer a different kind of comfort than words.

Be appropriate. Take into account the personality and age of your child in your answers to her questions. An anxious child, for example, may benefit from less information and more comfort than a sturdy child.

Be reassuring. Offer young children lots of verbal reassurance by focusing on what's being done to increase their safety. For example, you might say "A terrible thing has happened, but all the grownups are working hard to make things better and safer for all of us."

Put things in perspective. Provide an emotional "cushion of safety" for older children by placing these tragic events in perspective. You can explain, "We've been incredibly lucky in our country up until now because we've never had an attack on our soil. Most nations in the world have survived lots of attacks many times in their history. We will survive, too."

Empathize with your child's feelings. Don't diminish or deny his experience. Say things like, "I know how scared and sad you feel," instead of "That's enough! Try to stop thinking about it."

Things to Watch For Later

Be patient. Iin the months ahead, be patient with yourself and your kids and don't expect things to quickly return to "normal." An event like this is never forgotten, and can only be absorbed and mastered over time.

Watch for delayed responses. Your child may be under more stress as time goes by and he understands more about how vulnerable we still are.

Look for signs of continued stress. These include:

  • Changes in appetite
  • Sleeplessness, nightmares
  • Regressed behavior (bedwetting, baby talk, etc.)
  • Listlessness, melancholy
  • Physical symptoms (headaches, stomach aches, etc.)
  • Acute separation anxieties
  • Irritability and temper tantrums

In teenagers, also stay alert to:

  • Increased drug or alcohol use
  • Survivors' guilt
  • Defiant and/or delinquent behavior.

Seek professional help. Watch for symptoms of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). If your child or teenager becomes symptomatic in one to three months, be aware that she may be suffering from PTSD. If nothing you say or do seems to alleviate your child's symptoms, seek professional help. Many mental health professionals in stricken communities are offering this help for free.

Prepare for any travel. If you need to travel by air with your children in the months ahead make a positive point of all the increased security. You might say, "See how many more people we have around us now to make sure we're safe and our plane is safe."

Finally, remember that when you demonstrate that you are able to cope with these tragic events, recognize their impact, and accept the alterations in our lives that will be necessary for our future security, you're showing your children how to cope with tragedy, too. --Ava Siegler, Ph.D.

Dr. Siegler is the director of the Institute for Child, Adolescent and Family Studies in New York City, and the author of two award-winning books for parents, "What Should I Tell the Kids? A Parent's Guide to Real Problems in the Real World," and "The Essential Guide to the New Adolescence: How to Raise an Emotionally Healthy Teenager." She is married and the mother of two children.