Helping Children Cope in the Aftermath of Tragedy

“Mommy, can I say Shema again?”

Avi, age seven, asked his mother this question. When she asked Avi why he would do that, he explained, “If I get up in the middle of the night and I’m afraid, can I say Shema again?”

Avi is a secure and healthy child from a loving family, by all accounts typical and well-adjusted. Since the tragic news of the fire broke, Avi is having trouble sleeping through the night, clings to his parents and has been sleeping in their room. Avi has heard a few too many details about the gruesome aspects of the fire from his friends at school. Avi is exhibiting normal anxiety reactions in response to a very abnormal event.

One of the most important responsibilities of parents and educators is to provide children with a feeling of safety and security. It feels increasingly challenging for parents to accomplish this in a world that seems filled with uncertainty and pain. How do you help a child make sense of this unspeakable tragedy? How do you explain to a five-year-old boy that his schoolmate is gone and he won’t be playing ball with him at recess? How do you talk to an 11- year-old girl who is plagued by images of fire and death?

Helping Children Find Meaning In Tragedy

When Avi asked his question, Avi’s mother answered by telling him that it was a very good idea for him to say the Shema again in order to feel better when he was scared. She encouraged his own problem-solving and self-soothing and did not seek to rescue him from his own feelings. Avi’s mother also validated his feelings of being scared, and praised him for thinking of an idea to bring himself comfort.

Observant Jews by definition possess a belief system that is more than just a coping mechanism; it is an entire way of life that 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. Upon hearing the news about the fire, a six-year-old girl asked her father, “But Abba, why didn’t Hashem save them?” We live in a world where Hashem’s presence is sometimes  hidden and things that appear to be bad do happen to good people. Children perceive this and adults need to answer them honestly by acknowledging the question, admitting that we don’t always understand Hashem’s actions, and verbalizing our own feelings of sadness.

Leading by Example

How can parents instill feelings of strength and idealism in 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 parents’ feelings and mirror them. It is critical that parents recognize their own feelings and feel comfortable expressing them.

A young mother told me that the day after the levayah, her daughter picked up a copy of a Jewish newspaper with headlines about the tragedy 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 quickly 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’s room and apologized, telling her, “I am so worried and sad about the people that died in the fire that it was hard for me to talk about it with you.” This led to a discussion with her daughter that was meaningful for both mother and child.

The Resilience of Children

Even in the face of tragedy, children most often prove to be remarkably resilient. The key factors that 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.