By: JoAnn Jarolmen
Fall 2003, Vol. 10, No. 4
Caring for Our Children After a Tragedy
by JoAnn Jarolmen, Ph.D., LCSW
As a school social worker for 27 years, I have been asked many times about the how-to' of dealing with children as victims of crises and tragedy. Whether it is the simple loss of a pet, the death of a grandparent, or-on a larger scale-the tragedy of the World Trade Center, social workers are often called on for help and advice by parents and teachers. Most times the adults involved are also experiencing the distress caused by the traumatic event. The adults’ first response is to deny that children have understanding and feelings surrounding the occurrence. Research has provided other evidence.
Children (as young as six years old) do feel grief and need to experience their feelings surrounding the event. Children do not always experience the same response to these events as adults, and oftentimes, they experience a delayed response. Therefore, children' feelings are sometimes misintrepreted or-worse than that-ignored.
I will use the World Trade Center tragedy as an example for us in dealing with various age groups and disasterous events in a child' life. The day after the horrendous tragedy at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, we reflected on our own sadness and “quiet, unyielding anger” that we faced. Many of us were absorbed with our own losses and shock. All of us were reeling from the unbelievable occurrence and how to deal with it. But what were we to tell our children? How were we to process this incident and help them assimilate the information? Many parents and educators were concerned with this issue.
Depending on the age of the child and the effects on the family, my advice was varied. If a child is two years old or younger, and no family members have been involved in the tragedy, I would avoid a discussion or letting the child watch the reports on television. If the young child has lost a parent or significant person, then I would try to explain in understandable language that the person has died and will not be back. I would let the youngster talk about his or her feelings and then would explain my feelings. I would not leave the child alone and would spend time either reading or quietly reflecting. Parents should always reassure children that they are safe, and should not exhibit out of control behavior in front of children no matter how old they are. Letting the child see feelings is acceptable.
At the nursery school and primary school levels, my suggestion would be similar to the above, except that I would explain to the child that a very bad event that hurt many people occurred and that the bad people who caused the problem would be punished. Children at this stage of development understand the difference between good and bad, but do not comprehend the magnitude of the circumstances or the continuum of evil to good. Again, if the death has affected the child personally (such as the death of a parent), a mourning mode should be adopted and that child should be with the remaining parent or relative who can comfort and make him or her feel safe.
Children in intermediate and higher grades should be told of the events by their parents and allowed to view the television coverage of the happening (with their parents). Time should be spent with the child processing both the information and feelings about what occurred. Parents should allow the child to see that it is acceptable to feel sad and mourn for the people who have died and their families. These children should spend reflective and quiet time with their families and continue with the routines of everyday life. It is essential that routines be kept for all children, because it gives them a sense of security and consistency. If there has been a personal loss, the child should be told of the loss and allowed to grieve.
Children don’t usually grieve in the same way as adults. This does not mean that they don’t understand or cannot process the feelings. Often, children have delayed grief because they are not able to handle the impact of the horrendous sadness that they feel. We cannot force the process, nor can we ignore the reality that it will eventually occur. The important consideration is to allow an open forum for feelings and discussion and not leave the child alone to grieve.
In adolescence, children are able to understand the enormity of the event. The mistake that many parents make is thinking that these children are old enough to handle the situation on their own. They are not. They need the support of their parents and their peers. Parents should explain the situation to their children and allow them to reach out to those who have experienced a personal loss. If children in this age group want to reach out and help in relief efforts, such as giving blood or gathering food and clothing for victims or their families, that is a good use of energy. They can watch the events chronicled in the news and on television, but there must be quality time spent with their own families to process their feelings and thoughts. Again, if a personal loss is involved, these children can be part of any religious or cultural service or rite. They are old enough to understand the permanence of death, and they will need to mourn sufficiently to get back on the road to normalcy.
Above all, parents must show control over the situation so the children can model their behavior. Children, at times of crises, need to feel loved, safe, and secure. If the tragedy has not hit them personally, a response to normal everyday life activities must continue. If they have experienced a personal loss, they must be allowed to be part of the family and the grieving process. We found that after the World Trade Center tragedy, all children (whether or not they experienced personal loss) were affected by the events and needed to process their feelings.
JoAnn Jarolmen, Ph.D., LCSW, is an adjunct professor at Seton Hall University in South Orange, NJ, and a therapist at Holmstead School, a private school for adolescents with emotional problems. She was a public school social worker in New Jersey for 26½ years.