Helping your children cope with the kidnapping

As we come together as a nation in grief, we can draw from this strength in order to heal.

Children light candles at a memorial for the three murdered teenagers at the Gush Etzion junction on Monday night. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Children light candles at a memorial for the three murdered teenagers at the Gush Etzion junction on Monday night.
There are no words to describe the sadness most of us feel when we think of the tragic loss of Eyal, Gil-Ad and Naftali, and all that their families have endured.
As we reflect on how a nation has come together in prayer and song, let us hope that now, as we come together as a nation in grief, we can draw from this strength in order to heal.
We must do this for ourselves and in turn for our children, who, like us, are trying to make sense out of this tragedy.
How your children cope is dependent on many factors. As parents you are their most precious role model, so now you must look after your own needs, in order to help yourself and your children move forward and heal.
While adults often become steeped in disaster and live on their computers or phones in search of answers that may never come, children tend to cope differently. They often have moments of being upset, mixed in with what looks to the adult as “acting as if nothing happened.” They do, however, need your help to process all that has gone on.
Children are used to death as part of the natural cycle of life. Leaves turn brown, flowers wilt and bugs get squished. By the time a child typically experiences a loss, he has begun to formulate his own concept of death.
When loss or death involves someone old or very ill, or is anticipated, it is usually easier to deal with – as it “makes sense.” When the loss is sudden, unexpected, involves children or is violent, we experience shock and disbelief, and have greater difficulty coping with something that is much too large to fully comprehend.
It leaves us struggling desperately to make sense out of something we do not understand.
As adults speak to one another, they grapple with these issues. Yet children are often left with feelings for which they have no words.
What do we tell our children at this very important and tumultuous time? Here are some guidelines.
1. Provide age and developmentally appropriate information when at all possible. The impact of current events on your child very much depends on their age and stage of emotional development, temperament, perceived closeness to and identification with these children, and previous exposure to loss. You are the best one to judge.
Children, in general, respond differently than adults. One minute they may be intensely preoccupied with details of what has gone on, and the next minute may be laughing with a friend. This is normal.
2. Talk to your child. Explain what happened as best as you can. Choose your words carefully, to ensure that the message you intend to give is well-understood. Listen to their concerns and encourage your child to openly ask questions, while recognizing that you may not have answers.
They too need to talk and have their feelings validated. Children should be encouraged to draw pictures, write stories or keep a diary as a way of expressing their fears and gaining greater control.
As parents, you provide reassurance that all is okay with their world. A simple “How are you doing?” may enable them to engage in a conversation that might otherwise be missed. Most children do best with simple, honest and straightforward explanations, and not a lot of unnecessary details.
3. Find the positives. While it may appear there is little to be grateful for, it is important to take comfort in the small things – and encourage your children to do the same. For example, at the time of this writing, it is assumed that the children died very soon after they were taken captive, and thus did not suffer for long. It is also important to point out just how good these children were, and the positive values they helped impart in others.
4. Reduce further re-traumatization. Discourage constant media viewing. Television, with its graphic pictures and repetitious stories and detail, can prevent healing. It is easy to get caught up in the news and see just tragedy. Children don’t realize that the same scenes are being replayed again and again, and this in itself can cause further upset. They also need to hear the nice stories, so they can appreciate the beauty of these boys.
5. Memorialize the children in a way that gives meaning. Remember the children and their strengths. These were good, solid children from wonderful families. Help your kids take on some of the values the boys represented: they were kind, caring, worked with other children, were athletic, team players, spiritual, etc.
Ask your child what he would like to do to make the world a better place. Some children have already expressed that their prayers did not help. Let your child know that their prayers may have helped in ways we don’t yet understand, and that they were helpful to the families.
6. Reassure your children that you will do everything within your power to ensure their safety. Every child needs to know you will be there for them, and will look after their basic safety and security needs. This can be done in a casual way that does not elicit fear. Children should be taught important and emergency phone numbers.
7. Talk about how your child may feel. Check in with your child often, and notice how he is doing. It is not unusual to feel sad, confused, angry, frightened and even unwell as you and your child review what has happened. These are very normal stress responses to a very abnormal situation, and everyone may feel them. By recognizing your own feelings and acknowledging how your child may feel, you can help give your child the words he needs to put his feelings and deep emotions into words.
How will you know if your child is not coping? The majority of children will be fine with time, and will exhibit signs of returning to normal. Children that are having difficulty with what is going on will continue to show symptoms, dependent on their age and level of maturity. You may see sleep issues, regression, socialization concerns, and difficulty around eating, focusing and concentration issues.
They may appear sad, preoccupied, quiet or fearful. Some children may appear withdrawn and disinterested, have concerns about leaving the house or seem excessively preoccupied with what has happened; others have physical and somatic complaints such as headache and stomachache.
If you are concerned about how your child is coping, make sure you seek professional help. While there are no easy answers, enabling your child to feel good is one of the best gifts you can give them at this very difficult time.
The writer is a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in Ra’anana and author of the book Life’s Journey: Exploring Relationships – Resolving Conflicts. She has written about psychology in The Jerusalem Post since 2000. [email protected];