When the terrorist attacks on the U.S. happened on 9/11, I was working as Director of a clinic specializing in psychological trauma. That evening, after a very very long day at work, I returned home to my wife and two sons. My boys were 11 and 4 at that time. As my wife and I, along with the rest of the world, came to grips with the uncertainty and stress we were feeling, we also needed to help our children understand and cope with what happened early that morning.
In my 30 years as a clinical psychologist there is no better example of a time when I needed to translate fear, love, clinical knowledge, parenting skills, and more into clear, honest, and reassuring messages for the two most important people in my life.
As parents, we are faced with the challenges of helping our children understand and cope with frightening and stressful situations on a regular basis. Thankfully, very few of those situations are on the scope of a massive terrorist attack. However, how we assist our children during times of stress, can either further exacerbate a simple everyday emergency or help de-escalate something as complicated as a global threat like 9/11.
There are two primary keys to helping children cope with a wide range of stressful and potentially overwhelming events– including everything from fears of a new situation, to imminent threats posed by natural disasters. Understanding these key principles will help parents help their children cope and be resilient when facing adversity.
First, understand your child’s developmental level. Obviously, a preschooler has different skills and cognitive abilities than a pre-teen. However sometimes, during stressful periods, we as parents can allow our own fears or stress to interfere with our otherwise good parenting skills and insight. It’s important to not allow your own worries or anxieties to distract you from your ability to interact with your child in a way that aligns with their developmental level.
For my 4-year-old, on 9/11, this meant sitting him on my lap and explaining that what had happened that morning (which was being talked about everywhere )was over. It happened in the morning, the threat had passed, and he and his family were safe. The result…he was reassured and went about the business of being a 4-year-old.
My 11-year-old needed something else. He knew that my work might somehow bring me closer to the event, but with no real understanding of how that might happen. Helping him involved more of a discussion. He had questions and I provided answers. I explained what was known about the attack, assured him that our city was not being targeted, and that I was in no direct danger as I planned to head off to work the next morning.
The differences are clear. Basic reassurance accompanied by a hug, or cuddle vs. the need for cognitive understanding and reasoning. These are simple developmental differences that guided my approach.
A second key idea for parents to remember is three principles; safety, predictability, and control. These three things are often at the center of our fears and traumas. Situations we perceive as threatening often undermine our sense of security in one of these three domains. Your child’s developmental level will determine how you re-establish a sense of security and resilience for them when one of these three areas is threatened.
In my 9/11 encounter with my kids, immediate safety was my 4-year-old’s only concern. But in order for my 11-year-old to feel safe, he needed to hear details of the event, my rationale about future threats, and the logic behind my self-care plans. His level of cognitive development required more information in order to help him feel more in control of the situation and see a path to a more predictable life once again.
One of the most powerful things parents can do when their children are faced with crises or highly stressful situations is to maintain their child’s routines. The predictability of life is, by definition, the antithesis of crisis. As much as people might complain about a boring routine, it’s the first thing we long for when that routine is turned upside down by a crisis. This is even more significant when talking about children. Our routines provide a sense of control, reduce anxiety, and offer a form of psychological security that can help reduce stress, especially during times of crisis. The lack of verbal skills, particularly for young children, means they aren’t able to verbalize their concerns or ask questions in order to gain mastery of a situation.
Rather they will look to the familiarity and security of their routines to calm their anxieties. Re-establishing routine and predictability can go a long way toward stabilization and resilience for children and adults when faced with a crisis.
So, while stress, crisis, and even traumas are not unavoidable, as parents, we can rely on good parenting skills and simple psychological principles to help guide us through our children’s most challenging times.
About Dr. Kevin Becker
Dr. Kevin Becker is a licensed clinical psychologist who has specialized in trauma and crisis for nearly 30 years. He is currently a Senior Partner at Organizational Resilience International, a global crisis consulting firm. He served for ten years as Director of the Trauma Center in Boston, the nation’s first comprehensive research, treatment, and training facility for psychological trauma. He has worked extensively with governments, organizations, and communities following major disasters such as 9/11; the 2004 Tsunami; Hurricane Katrina, the Kashmir earthquake in 2005, the Amish school shooting, the Sandy Hook/Newtown shootings, the Marshall County High School shootings, and the Boston Marathon bombings.
He has authored globally-distributed manuals on caring for children and adults following disaster and tragedy and is a frequent speaker and trainer on issues of psychological trauma and crisis. His preferred methods of self-care are running and glassblowing. (See image below)
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org