September 22, 1999

How do you talk with kids
about a trauma like Wedgwood?

___By Marv Knox
___Although parents can't shield their children from the psychological shrapnel blasted by tragedies such as the massacre in Fort Worth last week, they can help youngsters' emotional wounds heal.
___Honesty, affirmation and openness provide the balm children need in the aftermath of
MAIDA FRAZIER, a sophomore at Brewer High School in White Settlement, grieves for two classmates outside her school, Sept.16. (RNS/Reuters photo)
violence, according to ministers experienced in helping young lives heal.
___The beginning is point-blank acknowledgement of evil in the world, they said.
___While the shooting at Wedgwood Baptist Church once again stunned the nation, smaller-scale violence and tragedy "happen every day," observed Wade Rowatt, director of St. Matthews Pastoral Counseling Center in Louisville, Ky.
___"We've got to begin by addressing the fact tragedy strikes the just and the unjust alike. Accidents and evil are real, and they happen," said Rowatt, author of "How to Talk with Teenagers" and a national lecturer on youth issues.
___"We just have to sit down and say to children: 'You know, we have tried to teach you that our world is not as safe as we wish it were. We've told you to be careful about talking to strangers and never get in a car with them or let them in the house,'" added Dick Maples, director of Texas Baptists' minister/church relations office and a veteran pastor and counselor.
___"But we must understand there's really no safe place in the world. Our safety is in the Lord, our faith in him and in each other."
___"Assure them the violence is not their fault," Rowatt urged. "They're not guilty for being survivors. They likely could not have prevented this. And they appropriately can express thankfulness for the well being of the survivors.
___"Then talk to them about grief--the normal emotional response to tragedy and loss. It's shock, numbness and a flood of emotions. You date the rest of your life from this event--everything that happened to you before this tragedy and everything that happened after."
___"Talk" is the operative word, Maples emphasized.
___"It's awfully important to allow the children to talk about the tragedy and express their feelings, rather than the parents doing all the talking," he said.
___"Begin by asking how they feel and what they think about it and if they're fearful about going to school or going to church," he suggested. "We'll see so much that is so graphic, with scenes of wounded people lying on the grass and stretchers and teens emotionally distraught. This goes beyond those who were personally involved. That's why you've got to allow children to express their fears."
___In doing so, parents, teachers and children's workers need to recognize the different abilities of children and teenagers to deal with fears and trauma, noted two specialists at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth.
___"The main difference is children are not able to express their feelings as well as teenagers," said Dana Wicker, an associate professor of counseling and psychology.
___"What we need to do first with children is process what they know," she explained. "We can listen and watch to determine what they have heard, what their understanding is, their thoughts and their feelings about it."
___Children may talk some, but they also may act out their understanding of what happened in play, draw pictures and "grieve in spurts," she said.
___However children process trauma, their first concern is for safety, she added. "My 8-year-old heard about the shooting on TV, and his first question was, 'Is the shooter dead?' I said, 'Yes,' and he said: 'Good. He won't come to shoot me.'
___"Younger children want to know they're safe. That's the first thing we need to communicate. We don't want to give them false hopes. But we can talk about the ways that they are safe, the things we do to protect them."
___Much like children, "it's very important for preteens to feel a sense of safety from the world," pointed out Phil Briggs, distinguished professor of student ministries at Southwestern.
___"I fear some parents will react instead of respond, being overprotective," he warned. wedglogo"We've watched this type of over-protectionism come in America--almost a family isolationism."
___Still, he advised against forcing preteens to talk about the tragedy "except when they bring it up."
___And both Wicker and Briggs advised against allowing younger children and pre-teens to watch much of news reports about tragedies.
___Pay close attention to children's behavior after a tragedy, Wicker said.
___"Children may have nightmares about this and be anxious," she reported. "All that is pretty normal. But if a parent continues to see a child having nightmares or regressing--acting younger than they are, wetting the bed, having difficulty at school or staying anxious or quiet or frustrated or cranky for a prolonged time--then they may want to talk to somebody. The child may need additional help."
___With children, "the main thing right now is not so much giving them answers as being alongside them, helping them to begin the grief process," she said. "It's not so much putting words to it. Later on, they can begin understanding why this happened."
___Teenagers, however, need to talk, Briggs stressed. "Teens learn by talking," he noted.
___"The thing that makes grief or death so hard on teenagers is it's outside their sense of reality," he added. "They live so much in the now. Their imagination still is in a fantasy world. But when they see or know of a close friend who is killed, it's such a shock to their reality, they need to talk about it. It needs to be a topic of conversation."
___"Realize one discussion won't solve it all," Maples cautioned. "And the time they want to talk may not be when the parents want to talk or have the time to talk. So, parents must be sensitive to be open, so that they are free to talk," especially at bedtime.
___Parents need to get one-on-one with their children since some children won't share their deep feelings in front of siblings, he advised.
___"Be ready to listen for this and talk about this for a long time," he said. "Children may have to talk about this many times over an extended time before they are ready to put this to rest. One week just won't do."
___All the counselors stressed the importance of honesty with children.
___"The main thing is that you've got to be honest with them and talk on a feeling level," Maples said. "Some children will freely express their emotions and some won't. You've got to be gentle and gently probe."
___Honesty also means dealing with anger, Rowatt said "Anger is a normal part of this."Revenge is a real temptation, but constructive use of the anger is a healing road out.
___"Survivors sometimes crash and burn themselves if they try unhealthy ways of avoiding anger and fear--like alcohol, drugs, sex or just giving up," he noted. Healthy ways of responding include participating in a support group, talking openly with family and making changes in their own lives.
___Teenagers particularly can benefit from the use of rituals "that carry meaning beyond words, such as planting a tree that is a memorial or dedicating or writing a hymn in memory of the lost friends and loved ones," Rowatt said.
___Sometimes a healing ritual is much simpler, he added, telling about his family's response to the recent death of his daughter's lifelong friend. "Because of what's happened, we are never going to bed without saying, 'I love you.' We tell each other we love each other every time we part."
___Community rituals include coming together in worship and "speaking the unspeakable--speaking their pain and hurt together," he said, urging pastors to "provide sanctuaries where taboo thought can be addressed in the context of the holy."
___"Theologically, we need to give people permission to express anger at God," he explained. "If God is God at all, God can receive our anger as a loving prayer. The honest expression of anger helps us move beyond bitterness. We have to move through the anger, almost like moving through a hurricane.
___"We want to help people own their own anger and dark side and revenge. Until we come to terms with the revenge inside ourselves, we're not going to be able to help people like this man (at Wedgwood Baptist Church) seeking revenge on others."
___He urged parents and ministers and others to help people "reimage their dreams, partly by helping them see themselves as part of the solution" to the tragedy.
___"This will be a great time for parents and kids to talk about religious things, for parents to verbalize their faith for their kids," Briggs stressed. "Don't use pious cliches. (This was not 'God's will.' If this is your concept of 'God's will,' then you're in bad shape.) This tragedy is too real to children and teenagers for cliches."
___"And pray together," Maples pleaded. "That is so very important in times like these."


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