I saw the story flashing on TV when I was rushing into a store the other day to pick something up. My quick glimpse of the TV told me that something bad had happened, but I didn’t want to stop and learn more. I wanted to get my errands done and I certainly didn’t want to deal a world change like the one on 9/11. I was conscious of the fact that I was choosing not to see, that my response was avoidance. I didn’t want to know that something else had happened to make my world feel less safe.
It took me a
long time to recover from 9/11. I, like
many, initially felt shock and disbelief. My anxiety, sense of vulnerability and obsessive news watching seemed
normal under the extraordinary circumstances. Yet, somewhere which in me, I
also sensed my reaction was too intense.
My sense of dread and restless hyper-vigilance seemed extreme. The
trauma associated with 9/11, which was horrific in and of itself, left me
feeling more fragile because it awakened an older trauma, the fearful feelings
that characterized my early childhood. I
grew up in a very anxious household and saw behaviors and heard beliefs that characterized
the world as a dangerous place. So 9/11
awakened that old dread which had been lying dormant; just
the right triggers, the twin towers, crashing in fire and smoke to the street
below, brought my dread to life.
And so it is that we can all have our
unresolved traumas of the past be triggered by the present horror. Luckily, as a practitioner of EMDR, I was
able to work through my unexpected reactions to 9/11. I knew that getting help from a colleague
who also did EMDR, would help me put to rest some of those fearful reactions I had
had to the 9/11 tragedy. As I finally sat down to look at the news of
the injury and destruction in Boston, I was relieved to know that I had not
gone back to that hyper-vigilant state.
I could feel appropriately distressed, saddened, and fearful but not
stuck reliving a part of my past history.
The past can overlay the present and confuse our sense of reality, as it
had done to me when I experienced 9/11.
news of the Boston bombings, has made me realize once again how children, too,
can have fearful experiences from the past be triggered by a current event, or
even by something they see or read in a book. Often, children’s fairy tales cause them to take in examples of evil
intent. In the safety of imagination we
can help them begin to deal with this.
We can begin
by acknowledging that as there are wicked witches, predatory wolves and folks
who trick young children in fairy tales, there are similar people and events in
real life that are scary to children.
When children have scary experiences in these situations, it is helpful
to encourage them to talk about them. We
can’t shelter them from these experiences.
But neither do we want to overwhelm them with our attempts at helping
them. Getting the right balance is
It is best to control, with discretion, what
children hear and see of frightening events.
Again, balance is the key here.
Both what they are exposed to, and the magnitude of their exposure, are
important. Our media, trying to fill up
time, repeats in endless loops tragic news and horrific disasters. Children don’t’ need to be continually
exposed to these images. Nor do they need to hear all the details
pertaining to the event. They don’t
need to know about how bombs are made or what’s in them. They don’t need to suddenly fear backpacks
or be nervous about running a race. Yet,
if they do show signs of fear or anxiety resulting from inappropriate exposure,
it’s important to sit them down and hear what they feel and what they’ve heard
and make corrections or reassure them.
Above all, it’s important to help them to express their own
sense of fear or vulnerability. Fear is an uncomfortable but essential
emotion. It warns us when we’re in
danger; when our emotional or physical well being is in jeopardy. So, it’s important to listen to children
when something in a news story makes them fearful. Let them talk about whatever they’ve become
anxious about even if it seems senseless to you. Children lack our knowledge of the world and
they are not cognitively sophisticated enough to take the long view or keep
thing in perspective. Young kids,
especially, are concrete, here and now thinkers. So take their concerns seriously. When you encourage kids to talk, it helps
make the fear less intense. Hidden fears
just grow and magnify. Children can fall into puzzling behaviors that don’t seem to
make sense to us. They might become
avoidant, no longer enjoying activities that were previously fun. Taking the time to listen and reassure can
help regulate children and reduce fearful behavior.
Kids also can benefit
from knowing specifics: for example, what the authorities are doing to figure
out what happened. We might explain
how this knowledge can help us know how to avoid a dangerous situation in the
future. In this process, we should be realistic
and acknowledge that bad things do happen. And that sometimes people act in ways in order to hurt others. And as we begin to teach children about real
dangers, we need to help them learn perspective, but also that goodness and
cooperation exist as well.
So with the Boston bombing, it’s helpful to tell children about the generous
help that arrived quickly. Tell them
about the emergency services that went in right away to pull people to safety
or get them to medical care. Horrendous
acts undermine our sense of safety, especially that of children, in major part
because these acts are usual and unexpected, and not the rule. Helping children with this perspective can
reassure them. As can telling them about
the many acts of bravery and cooperation that happened in the face of danger,
including those that occurred right after the bombing. Talk
about courage in general. Make up
stories about what you would have done or what some favorite action hero would
have done. And you can also ask your
child what they may have liked to have done if they could have had been there
with all the power and resources they needed.
I've listed of couple of trauma resources below.
Coping with Disaster Resources
· Explosions (section on After an Explosion)
· Disaster Distress Helpline (24/7 phone and text)