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The Effects of Terror on Children

By: Tzivy Ross  

Mommy, can I say the shema [bedtime prayer]again? Benjy, aged 7 and living in Israel, recently asked his mother. When she asked Benjy what he meant by this, he explained, if I get up in the middle of the night and I'm afraid, can I say the shema again?” 

Benjy is a secure and healthy child from a loving family, by all accounts “normal” and well-adjusted. Benjy is also having trouble sleeping through the night, clings to his parents and sleeps with a tehillim next to his pillow. Benjy goes to school every day and hears about the lastest pigua [bomb]” in Israel at recess, the most recent one which put the five year old brother of his classmate and friend into a coma. Benjy is living under the devastating specter of terror on a daily basis, and is exhibiting normal anxiety reactions in response to a very abnormal situation.

One of the most important responsibilities of parents and educators is to provide children with a feeling of safety and security. After the recent events on September 11 and with the ongoing terror in Israel, it has been increasingly challenging for parents to accomplish this in a world that seems filled with uncertainty and danger. How do you help a child make sense of unspeakable tragedy? How do you explain to a seven year old boy that his five year old schoolmate is lying in a hospital bed instead of playing ball with him at recess? How do you talk to an eleven year old girl who saw repeated images on TV of planes flying into the World Trade Center?

Helping Children Find Meaning in Tragedy
Mommy, can I say the shema again? Benjy’s mother answered his question by telling him that it was a very good idea for him to say the shema again to help himself feel better if he was a little scared. She encouraged his own problem-solving and self-soothing and did not seek to rescue him from his own feelings. Benjy’s mother also validated his feelings of being scared, and praised him for thinking of an idea to bring himself comfort.

One of the ways in which individuals cope with tragedy is by developing philosophical approaches which allow them to find some meaning and develop some mastery over the trauma. Dr. Danny Brom, Director of the Israel Center for the Treatment of Psychotrauma, recently described it in the following way: When a person is traumatized, they are stuck in p’shat [literal translation]. They may replay an image or thought in their mind repeatedly and can not move on from it. It may interfere with their functioning, as this idea and the fear and anxiety that accompanies it dominates over anything else. Eventually, in the process of recovery from trauma, it is helpful for the individual to be able to move on to d’rash [commentary].”D’rasha gives them the ability to analyze, develop some interpretations of what has happened to them and make some meaning of the trauma. This can help them feel a greater sense of control, and find some approach or idea which will allow them to tolerate the terrible pain that they are feeling. 

Religious Jews by definition possess a belief system which is more than just a coping mechanism; it is an entire way of life which defines every fiber of our being. This can provide enormous comfort to children by imbuing them with faith and with the knowledge that Hashem loves them and watches over them. At the same time, it is important for parents to be open with children, and allow for their questions, concerns and doubts to be aired. For example, providing false reassurance to children is not helpful. Upon hearing the news that their neighbor had been killed on September 11, a five year old girl asked her father, but Abba, didn’t he daven? Why didn’t Hashem save him? We live in a world where Hashem’s presence can feel hidden at times and bad things do happen to good people. Children perceive these and for parents to try to shield their children from this will create a sense of falseness and insecurity.

Leading by Example
How can parents instill feelings of strength and idealism to children? How can parents help children recognize and express their own feelings? In order to accomplish this, parents need to be comfortable with their own responses and approaches to tragedies as their children will surely be attuned to their parentsÂ’ feelings and mirror them. It is critical that parents recognize their own feelings, and feel comfortable in expressing them.

A young mother who is generally very psychologically aware and attuned to her children’s needs told me that her daughter recently picked up a copy of a Jewish Newspaper with headlines about the suicide bombings in Israel and asked her about it. She became very upset and yelled, you shouldn’t be reading that, it’s for grown-ups” and snatched the newspaper away. This mother later realized that it was her own anxiety and feeling of loss of control that got in the way of responding appropriately to her daughter’s question. She went in to her daughter and apologized, telling her Mommy is so worried and sad about the people being killed in Israel that it was hard for Mommy to talk about it with you. This led to a discussion with her daughter that was meaningful for both mother and child.

Be Honest
Children sense what is going on around them, and in contrast to many peopleÂ’s beliefs, are in fact reassured and not distressed when they are told the truth about what is happening. This allows them to develop trust and security, and coping skills to realistically manage the information presented. They should be spoken to in age-appropriate language and given age-appropriate information. Their need for information should be assessed. If they are asking questions, they should certainly be answered honestly. A child who is not asking questions and does not appear distressed need not be offered information.

The Resilience of Children
Even in the face of tragedy, children most often prove to be remarkably resilient. The key factors which promote resilience in children include receiving strong support and developing internal coping mechanisms, which can help children overcome and grow into healthy adults of strong character.  

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