Like millions of others around the world, I am still in a state of disbelief and sadness about the mass slaughter of little kids at school in Newtown, Connecticut last week. As a mom, I can’t wrap my brain around the fact that 20 six-and seven-year olds were wiped out at once while surrounded by the colorful maps and seasonal artwork, not to mention the friends they did playdates with, and the teachers who were guiding them in learning.
All of my children were lucky to have a student-teacher ratio in elementary school of twenty to one. If the Newtown shootings had happened at their school, they and all of their classmates would have been killed without exception. For some reason, putting the loss into personal terms that I can visualize – every single boy and girl in their classroom – has made this even harder to grasp. So how do parents and a community process and accept this type of unthinkable loss? It’s almost impossible to fathom, and even harder to think that some good might ever emerge from something so awful.
But research on survivors of trauma has discovered a phenomenon called “posttraumatic growth.” This occurs when a person’s life is profoundly rocked by a setback – one so severe that it causes you to challenge your core beliefs and question assumptions about people and the world around you. As you naturally ruminate back on the negative events, many people discover a new sense of purpose and meaning in their lives. They find that they are more resilient, more appreciative of their relationships with loved ones, and more grateful for the preciousness of mundane events. Not getting the promotion you wanted suddenly pales in comparison to not having someone you love on this earth. Life satisfaction is thus enhanced, and despite the trauma, people have been found to experience greater well-being than they had before.
Before that happens, though, there is the day-to-day slog through grief and shock. And because so many small children have been impacted, questions are swirling about how parents can handle their own feelings while also giving their children the right tools to help them process the circumstances. When done effectively, parents can give children a start on healing and eventually “making meaning” of something that appears so random and meaningless now.
To help me understand how young children process negative events, I turned to my two youngest children, who were six and nine when 9/11 occurred, and just one year older when the Washington, D.C. area was turned upside-down by a number of sniper killings, including one at a local middle school nearby. They both experienced a range of emotions and their lives were altered on a daily basis for a period of time with each event. They are different people today in fundamental ways because of what they lived through during their formative years.
Accordingly, they counseled me on what had been helpful to them and what could have been handled better by the adults around them in order to help them cope. I’m passing along their wisdom in case it can make a positive difference somewhere:
- Don’t show excessive emotions. Because we live close to the White House and the Pentagon, where one of the planes crashed on 9/11, the school is full of children whose parents hold government positions. One father, who worked at the White House, showed up at the elementary school in a frantic state after the Pentagon incident, running up and down the halls collecting his two children. To this day, my children tell me that seeing his reaction to 9/11 scared them more than the headlines and news that followed because they had no context for the primal fear they witnessed.
- Be honest, up to a point, about what has happened. Unless you are planning to wake up at 4 a.m. to cut headlines out of the newspaper, and keep the television and radio off at all times, your children will hear about upsetting events somewhere. My children say that knowing basic facts first from their parents that didn’t deviate much from what they saw in the media gave them a sense of stability. Some of their friends were told little to nothing substantial about what was going on, or the version was so sanitized that it was extremely confusing to square what friends said with what they had heard at home.
- Stick with normal routines. The sniper hit a number of his victims within a few miles of our house, including several killings at or near an intersection we went through several times a week to get to the martial arts. We decided to continue our normal evening drive to that activity. We did, however, run through the parking lots in zigzag fashion and didn’t sit near floor-to-ceiling glass at the front of the studio. With so many disrupted routines – outdoor recess cancelled, school buses with papered-over windows, and even pumpkin-and apple-picking field trips cancelled – they craved whatever structure they could get from their “normal” life. My daughter now says she has a better understanding of how people live in war zones because carrying on, in spite of what was happening, was an empowering experience for her.
- Point out the positives that are happening. On the night of September 11, everyone in our neighborhood was encouraged to go outdoors and light a candle. My daughter said that doing so taught her what it meant to be “patriotic,” which had just been a nebulous concept before. Seeing so many people pulling together in respect, prayer and united mourning gave her a sense of pride in her country, and a new understanding of what it meant to be American.
- Emphasize kindness and heroic acts of others. Studies have found that the happiest families often recount stories of overcoming hard times, and that those stories usually feature help coming from people outside the family, and even from strangers. When children grow up in families where hard times are used as prompts to discuss ways in which other people can be relied on when you need them, they have less fear of strangers and more optimism.