Many of us woke this morning to news, emails, facebook posts sharing the painful news of the terror attack in Har Nof. Many Jewish students, whether in day schools or congregational Hebrew schools, have become accustomed to having their Israeli counterparts in their prayers. Many Jewish students outside Israel have deep, meaningful and very real connections to people and places in Israel. The places we hear as being under attack are not abstractions, we davened in that shul in Har Nof, our cousins live in the same neighborhood as Naftali Fraenkel, one of the boys murdered by terrorists this summer. Today’s events, although an ocean away, feel painfully close. How we can help our children and students make sense of such tragedy and cope in these challenging times.
As parents and educators, we have to do what we always have to do in times of challenge and trauma. We have to be the grown-ups. Sobbing and panicky inside, we need to present ourselves as capable of resilience and protection, as taking all the right steps. Of course, right now, every educator and every parent is wondering just what are the right steps, when fresh images of violence fill our minds, and adults, themselves, are grieving. Here are some important guidelines, for adults and the children in our care.
Normalize the response –Physically, emotionally, intellectually, or in combination, trauma can cause us to feel out of sorts in a way that is often distressful. It is important for us to allow ourselves our grief, our increased distractibility, as part of a normal response to an abnormal situation. Communicating this to children is so important in helping them recognize that they are not alone or “weird” to be struggling as they are. Educators and parents listen for both sadness and resilience in their children’s current stories. We should be ready to sit strong and patient as they share feelings of vulnerability and danger. We should watch tv with our children and students, prepared to address any disturbing images they see.
Address basic needs, provide safety and material comforts – The Red Cross, and other relief agencies well know that providing food, shelter, and fulfilling primary needs is at least as important as providing psychological comfort. We should be prepared to provide some extra cuddling or other TLC, to be a bit lenient with bedtimes and homework due dates. Adults need to remember, too, what every airline stewardess knows, “if the cabin loses air pressure, and oxygen masks drop from above, take care of yourself, before assisting others”. Adults need to see to their basic needs and comfort, so that they will have the emotional resources to care for their children and students.
Maintain/create social connection and sense of belonging – Tragedy can make us feel alone, and cause us to withdraw, yet spending time with people is critical for resilience. Rather than distance ourselves and our children from the pain in Har Nof, we can connect in meaningful ways, writing letters, sending our wishes, praying for the lost and wounded, making ourselves part of a caring community.
Re-establish routine and control – Trauma and loss upset life’s patterns, and erode one’s sense of predictability and control. For most of us this loss does not impact our daily routine. Parents and educators need to balance the benefit of adding special programs and lessons to give voice to children’s concerns, with the comfort of maintaining established routines.
Finding purpose/meaning – There is no doubt that how individuals understand tragic events and the meaning they assign them, impacts coping and resilience. While early psychological approaches to coping eschewed spirituality, modern conceptualizations of resilience and recovery put faith at the forefront. Children may ask challenging spiritual questions at such times. Much more important than adults having the answers, is our willingness to tolerate the questioning. Easier to address are the questions “what can we do”; “how can we help”. Research underscores the strength-building power of becoming part of the solution, or serving in a helping role. Adults help children make meaning in times of great loss and tragedy, when they engage them in meaningful, compassionate giving of themselves.
When we think of the terror and tragedy, and when we know there are those who wish it to continue, it is easy for us to become paralyzed and overwhelmed. But we cannot withdraw from children at these difficult times, nor greet them with silence. Our children and students need to see that we see beyond trauma and tragedy. They need us to help them see a world where even in terrible moments, adults are here, listening, protecting, and getting ready for tomorrow.