In the 1998 film “Life is Beautiful,” an Italian Jewish father is sent to a concentration camp along with his young son just before World War II ends. His desire to shield his son from the horrors all around sparked an unusual creativity in him that resulted in a continual stream of ways to keep his son from fully understanding the weight of the danger he was in. In the end, he saves not only his son’s life, but his tender mind and heart as well.
The movie, critically acclaimed, is a celebration of perspective and resilience. How can life be beautiful in the midst of war, racial genocide, and great loss and destruction? Yet, the movie stands as a testament to parents’ great love for their children and desire to see them come through life’s difficult seasons with as few scars as possible.
Helping children mend after a great trauma is generally at the forefront of a parent’s mind after an event like the one we’ve recently undergone. The tornado swarm that whipped through the South on April 27 devastated homes and livelihoods, but it also affected many of us emotionally.
We know that post-traumatic stress is associated with the length of a life-threatening and frightening event, the degree of its severity and the losses it causes. Helping children manage their own sense of helplessness, sadness or fear is essential to helping them overcome their emotions and move forward.
Here are some tips from the experts for parents of those affected deeply by the storms:
- Set aside time to talk about feelings and thoughts rather than avoiding the discussion. Children may need to know its OK to express feelings. Teachers may want to allow children to express their version of events through story, art or even role-play.
- Focus on your child’s perspective, allowing him or her to freely express rather than giving a lecture-type talk about what happened.
- Affirm their feelings with simple statements like, “I can see why you felt that way” or “What you felt is normal.” This allows the child to know that someone else can handle their uncomfortable or scary feelings and it is safe for them to share them.
- Stay neutral and non-judgmental. Avoid statements such as, “You shouldn’t feel that way.”
- Children often ask complex questions about life and God that adults cannot answer. It is OK to say, “I don’t know.” You can add something encouraging, such as, “You’re wondering if something like this will happen to us again? I don’t know, but I don’t believe it will. Even if it does, we can get through it together when the time comes.”
- Watch your child for any signs of agitation or distress. Some children may fidget more or engage in distracting behaviors. Some regress to less mature ways of acting. Others may withdraw, complain of nightmares or have physical hurts and pains. If these persist even after taking the time to talk and soothe your child, consider professional help for them.
- Remember that helping a child de-stress after an event is highly important. If you can, move to calm a child through touch, voice, routines and activities that help them feel empowered. This can be done by putting them in charge of a simple chore or activity or allowing them to help someone in need when they are able. Simple acts like passing out water, giving out free hugs or helping serve food can make a child feel they can make a difference in others’ lives.
- After a certain amount of time, shifting perspective from victim to survivor can be helpful in reducing affects of trauma.
Tabi Upton, MA-lpc is a therapist at CBI-Richmont Counseling Center and founder of www.chattanoogacounselor.com, an online resource site. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.