HOW TO ADDRESS YOUR CHILDREN
September 11, 2001 now enters our language in the same emotional way as December 7, 1941 and November 22, 1963. Most people remember where they were when they found out about Pearl Harbor and about the shooting of John F. Kennedy. For most people, their first awareness of those events came on the radio. As photo images trickled in from Pearl Harbor, and televised images filtered in from Dallas, the tragic news we had heard was matched by visual pictures. But September 11, 2001 is plagued forever by the immediate, constant and graphic images which have already been shown thousands of times over.
There was no time lag between the news and the pictures. It all happened simultaneously, in real time. While we adults grappled with the gamut of emotions unearthed by the toppling of the World Trade Center Towers and the fatal breech of the Pentagon, the question we have heard most often at The Grief Recovery Institute is:
What do we say to our children?
Children come in all ages and sizes and with their own unique personalities attached. Some are outgoing, some are shy. Intellectual and emotional maturity differ from child to child. It is impossible to put down one set of guidelines that would be applicable to all children. Nearly everyone we talk to has told us a story about Tuesday afternoon or Tuesday night, in which they tried, with varying degrees of success to address the emotions triggered in children of all ages. As parents already know, it can be difficult to explain death to young children, who often don’t grasp the idea of the permanence of death. The idea that there are evil people who want to harm us, adds another dimension to the task of communicating with little children. Children anywhere from age 3 to 8 may have difficulty with the ideas and images they have heard about and seen on the television over the past few days. The 9-12 age bracket and the 13 and up bracket will have different fears and preoccupations than the younger children. We will give some general guidelines that have universal application for parents and other guardians,
Talking to your children about 9/11
We have been asked whether or not parents should allow their children to watch the non-stop television coverage. While we do not give advice, we recognize that since we as adults are affected by the repeated images, they will obviously affect the children. However, we are not the authority source for your children. You must make your own decisions about TV exposure for your children. It may be unrealistic at this point to keep your children entirely hidden from TV, newspapers, magazines, or even conversations about the tragedy.
What is most important is that you make it safe and possible for your children to talk with you about the information they are seeing or hearing about. In our book, When Children Grieve, we address the general issues of how to talk about death with children, and whether or not to allow children to attend funerals. We also address the fact that the most important element about children and grief, is not the AGE or SIZE of the child, but the KNOWLEDGE and HONESTY of the parents and other guardians. In the book, we do not make specific reference to the type of incident this nation and its citizens, young and old, have just experienced.
Even if we had decided to address national tragedies in general, the specifics of this event are so extraordinary that it is unlikely that we could have come close to the circumstances that are producing the kind of questions and preoccupations that are affecting us and our children.
Now to tell the children the truth about yourself
On Wednesday morning, September 12, 2001, I sat in a chair as a young woman applied makeup to my face so I could go on a local TV show to talk to the parents about how to talk to their children. When she found out why I was there, she told me that the night before her 8 year old daughter told her that she was scared. I asked her if she told her daughter that she too was scared. She said "no." I asked her if she was scared. She said "yes." Then she asked me if she should have told her daughter that she was scared. I said, "If you expect her to tell you the truth, then you must tell her the truth." I went on to remind her that her daughter’s ability to read and interpret non-verbal communication is much more developed than her ability to understand spoken language.
In that regard, her daughter probably "knew" that her mom was scared. She then might have been confused as to why her mom’s verbal and non-verbal communication was not the same.
Here are two educational ideas: It is generally accepted that non-verbal communication makes up as much as 80% of our ability to communicate. That includes body language and tone of voice. More importantly, it is believed that when faced with conflicting communications, the receiver will invariably respond to the non-verbal. Thus the saying, "Do as I say not as I do," makes little sense, especially with the children, who may still be much more adept at non-verbal skills than verbal.
Adults go first
When lecturing to a group of people, we ask this question, "Do you like being lied to?" Of course, not one hand in the room goes up. Then we ask, "How many of you when asked how you feel have said ‘fine,’ when you were actually feeling lousy?" Every hand in the room goes up. We then say, "Houston, we have a problem. None of you like being lied to, yet all of you lie about your feelings." We go on to explain that the reason most of us do this is because when we have told the truth about how we feel, we have been told, "Don’t feel bad, tomorrow’s another day," or "Don’t feel bad, be grateful you have two arms and two legs." When a loved one has died and we say how we feel, we’re told, "Don’t feel bad, she’s in a better place," or "Don’t feel bad, she lived a full life." If a divorce has rocked our world, we are told, "Don’t feel bad, you’ll do better next time."
As you can plainly see, each and every circumstance is met with the illogical phrase, "Don’t Feel Bad." This happens after you have told the truth to someone you trust. It is absurd to think that someone telling you not to feel bad would actually alter the way you feel. If it was that easy, you could just tell yourself to not feel bad. The bottom line is that after a while you start lying about how you feel, because when you tell the truth, you are told you shouldn’t feel that way. And just for the moment, we’ve been talking about adults. Imagine what it is like for a child to trust the adults and tell the truth about their feelings, only to be told not to feel that way. In our books we use the classic example of the 5 year-old who comes home from pre-school, with tears in her eyes. Asked what happened, she says, "The other little girls were mean to me." To which the adults say, "Don’t Feel Bad, here have a cookie, you’ll feel better."
One more example: Again, with an audience of adults we can ask this question - "What is your response when your spouse says, ‘What’s wrong honey?’" The almost universal response is, "NOTHING." And that is from the person you most trust in this world. Why? Because even your spouse is afraid they will be told - all together now- "Don’t feel bad, ...fill in the blank..." Direct questions about emotions, other than the conversational courtesy of "Hi, how are you," are often perceived as interrogations or attacks. So, if we as adults are sensitive to protect our feelings, imagine what it’s like for the children. You may have observed over time that when you ask your children how they are, they may say "fine," even when you know they’re not. You may have noticed that when you ask them, "what’s wrong, sweetie," they’ll say "Nothing." They have learned to protect themselves, just as you have.
The problem is that we all need to have a safe place to talk about the feelings we have in response to all of life’s events. The events of this week have produced the greatest single shock-wave of emotions in adults and children in America, in many decades. The best way to find out how someone feels is to tell them how you feel. It creates safety. This is especially important with children. Thus our admonition - ADULTS GO FIRST.
In regards to the events of this week, it would sound something like this: "I was so scared when I heard [or saw] about what had happened. I was worried for our safety and then I was so very sad about the people and the families who were directly affected by the tragedy." Please notice, we are suggesting not only that the parent go first, but that they tell the simple and clear truth about their own emotions - "I was so scared...I was so sad..."
One of the most incorrect ideas we have learned is that we should "be strong" for our children. Unfortunately that usually translates into the adults hiding their own feelings and sending mixed messages to the children. We rather suggest that you "be human" for your children - it is a much more helpful way to assist them in life.
We have written about this in considerable detail in When Children Grieve. It is helpful to know these better ideas for day-to-day occurrences, as well as for dealing with extraordinary loss events of all magnitudes.
Let us put this as simply as possible. Please don’t tell your children: Don’t Feel Bad Don’t Feel Sad Don’t Feel Scared Oh, and if you haven’t figured it out yet, don’t say those things to your adult friends, either.
Once may not be enough
Creating safety and open emotional communication is essential at times of crisis, when our world is turned upside down and provokes a wide array of natural fears. But, it is foolhardy to think that a singular chat may be sufficient to complete everything that accrues inside your child’s heart, mind, and soul. As you might debrief the events of normal days with your spouse or children, it is wise to create some conversational safety so your children can feel free to mention some of the new ideas they may have heard that day in school, at a friend’s house, or on radio or TV, about the ongoing developments in this highly charged case.
Again, it is always smart for the adult to go first. Even if there is nothing new, or if you do not want to create a preoccupation in your children, you can say, "I didn’t hear anything new today, what about you?" At least you can gently open the door, without interrogating your child. It is also a good idea to adopt a normal, conversational tone. It might be a good idea to avoid things like, "let’s sit down and talk about what’s going on," which might put your child on the spot. DON’T FIX FEELINGS Grief is the normal and natural reaction to loss of any kind. We have all experienced a loss of safety as well as a lost of trust. If your child said they were happy, you would not try to fix or alter that feeling. Therefore there is no need to fix a feeling of sadness or fear. Feelings need to be heard, not fixed. We all need to feel safe enough to talk about how we feel. Since feelings are normal and do not need to be fixed - Don’t Fix Them.