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March 20, 2012

Helping Children deal with loss, tragedy, and fears

Written by Dr. John Carosso

Tragedy happens: what can we say?
Whether it’s a school shooting, car crash, natural disaster, or a natural death of a loved one, we must regularly face the pain of tragedy and loss. I am often asked by parents how they can relieve the pain and fear experienced by their child. That’s a tough question; there is no way to completely alleviate pain, worry, and suffering from this life, but there are ways to help. Here it goes.

Time heals all wounds?
It may be true that time heals, but there are ways to help and speed-along the healing process, increase resiliency, and put things into perspective to promote acceptance of hardships. It makes a difference if a child is fearful of a tragedy they see on TV, or if they are directly experiencing the event. We’ll touch on both here in this post.

I often work with kiddos who struggle with “what if’s” and fears that the worst will occur (someone will break into the house, a tornado will strike, the house will burn down, Mom or Dad will die…) and usually these fears are exacerbated by some recent tragedy witnessed on TV. Children who have a history of worry and anxiety are obviously more vulnerable to such fears (may be best to turn-off the TV).

Bolster the ‘Truth’ Army
We use the ‘truth’ to manage this problem; plain and simple. We’re honest with kids that bad things happen at times, and that there could be a robbery, or a tornado, or fire. However, the truth of the matter is that the likelihood is, generally speaking, remote. Other reassurances include that Mom and Dad are sleeping right down the hall, they are both healthy and show no signs of illness, we have an alarm and locks on the doors, there has not been a tornado around here in the past 50 years, we live in a relatively safe neighborhood, we’ve never been robbed (given these things are true)… During the countess encounters I’ve had with worrying kiddos, I’ve often found them to be ill-prepared to counter worries with such truthful and reassuring thoughts. So, we need to bolster the ‘army’ of reassuring self-talk through reminders, postings on the wall, and journaling, all of which invariably has a calming effect.

What else is there?
Children are remarkably perceptive to life events and realities. On many occasions young children have explained to me a recognition, on varying levels, that life is difficult and loss is to be expected, and there must be something more. To help children deal with loss, clinically, we’ve found that children experiencing loss need lots of extra attention, empathy, reassurance that their needs will be met, ongoing consistency and predictability in their environment (to the extent possible), patience, extra love, and adults who are emotionally strong and ‘keeping it together’. From a spiritual perspective, I have found the Judeo-Christian perspective quite helpful, which explains, in no uncertain terms: we live in a fallen world where bad things happen; we try to make the world a better place by showing God’s love; this world is not where we belong, this is not our home – we’re just passing through on our way to a better place; we will go through bad times; God will help us through the bad times; we all will die someday; and we have hope of all meeting together again in Heaven. This reality does not take away the pain, but helps kids (and adults) to recognize the realities of life, and squelch the destructive mentality of “why me” or “why did this happen”.

What not to say?
I’ve read that we should not tell kids who have experienced a loss of a loved one that, for example, “Grandpap is in a better place.” Well, I’m not sure we shouldn’t say that. It depends on lots of factors, but I think that we all take comfort believing our deceased loved ones are in a “better place” awaiting our arrival. This has been helpful for me, how about you? Of course, we also need to provide the reassurance I suggested above, both in what we do and say. People deal with loss in different ways; the goal is that we demonstrate resiliency, after a time of mourning, by ‘keeping on’ with life and finding joy where you can.

Now what?
There are no magic words to help a person heal. It’s a matter of listening, empathizing, at times being quiet and ‘just being there’, providing comfort and affection, and reminding that you’ll all be working together to move on with life, no matter how hard it may seem at the time.

I hope you found this to be somewhat helpful. I’d love to hear what has worked for you in managing your child’s fears or loss. Feel free to Comment here, or email me at God bless you.

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