Helping Our Children Share Their Worries and Concerns in Troublesome Times

by Andre Heuer

A Guide for Parents and Teachers

Since the events of the World Trade Center, many parents, teachers, grandparents, and other adults find themselves facing the task of helping children cope with the tragic events and the fear arising in its aftermath. A major difficulty of supporting children is that no matter if the tragedy happens directly to them or to others, children often personalize and imagine the events as happening to them. Further complicating the situation is that children don't always articulate their fears, instead they bury their fears deep within and/or they express their fears in their behavior by acting them out.

For example children in hearing the news that someone's parent was killed in the World Trade Center on the 104th floor may become cranky and irritable. They refuse to go to school. The parent asks the child if they are sick and the immediate answer is "I don't know. I just don't want to go to school." At first the child's father or mother may assume that the child is afraid of going to school. However, after further discussion the parent might learn that the child is afraid because the father works in a high rise on the 90th floor. It would be easier if the child just says, "Dad, are they going to crash a airplane into your building and will you die?" However, this is not how many children deal with their feelings. The question is how do we help our children articulate their feelings?

Helping our Children Share Their Questions and Fears Evoking children's personal stories can be an effective way to give a child the opportunity to express and to work through their feelings. Through a child's story parents and teachers discover how well the child is coping. In a recent news interview a reporter asked a young seven year old boy to tell the story of his escape from a school near the World Trade Center. The reporter understood that he needed to actively engage the boy if he wanted the boy to tell his story. As the reporter walked with the boy to the child's new school he asked the boy to describe details of the day. The reporter asked questions such as, "What did you do as you ran down the street?" and "What did the teachers say?" The reporter's questions sparked the boy's imagination because they focused on the details of the experience and not on how the boy felt. The boy described running down the street and pulling his teacher behind him. He described the loud noise of the falling building and the dust. He admitted his fear but also expressed how he made a choice to be brave. This young boy became a hero in his story. Of course this child did not fully grasp the tragic circumstances. However, the boy, by telling his story, found comfort and confidence in his ability to deal with events that were difficult and scary.

Parents, teachers, and other adults can enable a child to share his or her story by asking questions that focus on the details of the experience. Examples of questions that can be asked are, "Tell me what you were doing when you heard about the plane crashing into the building." "What were you working on?" and "What did your teacher say?" In other words, encourage the child to fill in the details. Further, you can ask questions that help the child explore, "What did you want to do?" This evokes the stories of their hopes and their fears and creates an opportunity for both teachers and parents to hear what the child wants. For example, the child might say, "I wanted to run home and hug you." The parent might respond to the child by fulfilling the imagined storyline, by having the child actually run into their arms and hugging them. This permits child to act out their story and to receive the pleasure and security of having their desire fulfilled and in the process healing.

Renewing a Sense of Security and Hope

There are several reasons why it is important for children to share their story. Children, like most of us, find it helpful and cathartic to share their experiences and in doing so the child feels seen and heard. This helps them to rediscover a sense of who they are and to regain a sense of security. Tragic experiences are often overwhelming to the child and the structuring of their experience into a story enables them to get a better hold and understanding of their experience. The shaping and telling of their story enables the child to create a healthy detachment from the experience while gaining a new and different perspective. Finally, their personal stories give rise to hope when the child is encouraged to create alternative solutions and possible outcomes.

In encouraging our children to tell their personal stories there is a need to share more than the troubling experiences and stories. The mere repeating of the painful elements of the experience can have a negative effect. Dwelling upon the troubling circumstances tends to reinforce the damaging aspects of the experience and psychologically sabotages the healing process for the child. Teachers and parents need to help the child to remember comforting and pleasurable stories.

There are many ways to encourage our children to remember good and successful times. Begin by telling a story in which a child overcame an obstacle. Allow the child to tell the rest of the story. In a time of confusion it is okay to encourage the children to tell a story that is fun and has nothing to do with the difficult situation. You might say, "Do you remember when…" Recount a little bit of happy or fun time and let the child tell the rest. This approach allows the child to remember that there are good times. These meaningful and pleasurable memories, experiences, and stories help motivate children and create a sense of well-being. However, it is important to remember not to use the good-times stories as way to avoid the sad or unhappy feelings or stories. It is important to remember that the child will naturally experience memories and feelings of confusion throughout the process of healing. Excessive dwelling on a painful experience or an attempt to gloss over the child's sadness or anger creates problems. It is important to allow children to share their stories at their pace.

Reaching Out to Our Children

As parents, grandparents, teachers, and adults it is our responsibility to reach out to our children and invite them to share their personal stories. In this process we need to share our stories with them. We cannot be afraid of showing our vulnerabilities. However, at the same time we must demonstrate that we are taking care of ourselves and that we are there for them. They need to know that they are our primary concern. If we share the stories of our struggles, triumphs, and even our failures in the midst of troubling times and we give them the opportunity to share their stories, we will provide some of the important conditions necessary for our children to feel secure in our love even in tough times.

Additional articles and stories on this sensitive topic can be found on the Healing Story Alliance Web Site