Last two days have been tough. There are questions, worries and fear. The boys, like all other kids, are distressed. And to add to it all, the classmates give their version of it all. Children need to come to terms with the painful facts of the attack that led to a funeral in each street of Peshawar. They need to be resilient and we have to help them. How do we do that?
I am less careful around the children now. They read newspapers; there isn’t much I can do. Had they been younger, the world would have been a rosy place. But now it is a blood bath. They see images, read articles and shed tears. Last two days have been tough. First, they tried to wrap their heads around what was going on. Like all adults, they are finding it difficult to come to terms with it. The process is further complicated by rumours.
Yesterday, after coming back from school, the older one looked worried.
‘Mum, has the Taliban leader said he is going to wipe out all children of the world? My class mates said so.’
The younger one asked, ‘Can it happen in our school too?’
‘Did any child survive?’ the older one continued.
While I told them all about it, I noticed that they were hanging on to each word, as if seeking out survival strategies. They were scared. And going by some of the conversations I had with other mums, so are most kids. And most grown ups.
There will be always be times when we, the parents, would wish that newspapers went blank, and we could cocoon the little ones. But then, they will always get information. And more often than not, it would be fairly twisted when it comes from their trusted source – their friends at school. So what do we do? How do we heal the little ones? Do we give in to fear? It is, after all, a very real threat. Thankfully, resilience carries us through, and according to leading psychologists, we can help children learn to be resilient. How do we promote resilience then? I have tried the following and so far so good.
1. Inform in age – appropriate terms
The younger lot can be somewhat shielded from the rest of the world, but as the child gets older, his circle of the known outer world increases, and protecting him gets tougher. Hence, it is always a good idea to inform them about whatever is going on by using words and facts appropriate for their age.
Do not brush aside the child’s concerns and questions as ridiculous. They might seem meaningless from where we stand, but for them these are very real threats. Listen with honest attention. Then, without once calling the fear ridiculous, try to lay the fear at rest.
3. Discover the child’s strengths.
Being a Positive Psychologists, I sound biased in favour of individual character strengths. I know. But research shows that an individual who consciously exercises his strengths is happier and better adjusted. The VIA survey offers various tests for different age groups to discover one’s strengths. If the child is too young for it, observe him. Know what gives him true happiness and encourage him to do that in times of stress.
4. Stick to the routine
Routines are great source of security and comfort, especially for the younger ones. Make sure, that in times of stress, the routine is maintained- right from homework to bed-time story. Be there. The soothing presence of the parent goes a long way in healing.
5. Find channels of communication
My younger one tends to bottle up. He finds it easier express himself in written words. The older one is very comfortable talking to his grandmother. As a parent, I do not see this as my shortcoming. I use these channels. I have a ‘Santa mail account’ that I use to talk to the younger one, and Nani does a wonderful job at listening to the older one. The idea is for them to air their fears, and for us to help them deal with their anxieties.
6. Do not over protect.
That is our instinct. Left to our devices, we would protect them from every scrape, nick and hurt. But doing so doesn’t allow them to learn to heal. Let them have age-appropriate freedom. Let them face emotional lows, and then help them learn to cope. The process of being resilient to bigger, more real threats is learnt through fairly smaller hurts.
7. Be honest
‘Mum, can it happen anywhere?’ That question echoed in my head for a long time, and my maternal instinct, in a futile bid to protect, wanted me to hug him and say, ‘of course not.’ Instead, I hugged him and said, ‘it can happen anywhere. And so can a lot many other things but we can not let fear take over our lives, can we?’ Then a conversation followed about real fears and surreal assumptions. Saying that bad things cannot happen, threatens our position as a trusted adult. Being honest, giving facts minus the gory, overwhelming details, is way more reassuring.
8. Exercise emotional control.
While watching the news, like all others, I choked, felt seething rage and searing pain. My emotional reactions are a cue to the children to judge balance in their world. I remember as a child, getting injured, and yet feeling in control on seeing my father’s calm face and hearing his soothing voice as he cleaned the wounds with antiseptic lotion. So if we break down, they break down. Maintain an honest brave front in front of them. If you need to pretend, take a time out, wash your face, talk to a friend, and then get back to donning that cape.
9. Encourage expression
Do not always tell what happened. Ask them. Yesterday was a mess. They came back from school with all sorts of distorted facts. We started the conversation with my work place and what people were saying about the attack. This gave them a starting point to share what they heard. Then one by one, we thrashed out facts from fiction. But not once did we use words like, ‘that’s ridiculous.’ or, ‘No, that child was wrong.’
Sometimes, the child is unable to cope, and displays changes in behaviour like, sleep disturbances, excessive clinginess, change in eating patterns, lack of concentration, and an overall darkness of mood. Any persistent changes that are observed, and cannot be attributed to natural growth, should be taken seriously, and professional help should be considered. Resilience should never be assumed. Just because they are kids doesn’t mean that they will bounce back soon enough. When they do not, seek help.
11. Discuss safety measures
This morning’s paper is filled with individual stories of loss and survival. I know there will be more discussion. This morning while going to school the older one said, ‘my friend told me that some children pretended to be dead and were saved. Is that true?’ I nodded and resisted the urge to tell him that I’ll set the world on fire if someone so much as thought of harming him. That would be unreal. So I nodded and hugged him. It is a good idea to strike a balance between real fear, practical safety measures and acceptance of the unknown. Whenever they read about disasters, we try and discuss what all we can do in case we get caught up in a bad situation. Their fears are real, and knowing that there is always a chance is comforting. Research on do’s and don’ts and them discuss.
Threats will always be there. The newspaper will always be coloured in red. We, as parents and individuals, can never let that fear get the better of us, for if the fear wins, they win. I am trying hard to get them to look at the bleak yet bright side of the world. Tonight, when we hug each other goodnight, I know there will be more tears, and hence I prepare myself to wipe them.
Also published at Momspresso