Thomas Demaria, Ph.D. is a Clinical Psychologist and Professor at Long Island University Post. He is an Advisory Board Member on the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement.
Not so long ago, childhood was a carefree time of “play, creativity and exploration.” Our children now appear bombarded by a series of direct and indirect threats which challenge their safety and security. In order to protect our children, we warn that they should not trust strangers and be wary of anything that is unusual. Shielding our children from upsetting images and frightening stories overwhelms us because various forms of the electronic media often find a way through our defenses with these forbidden fruits. How can we help our children preserve their childhood?
Helping our children does not involve isolating them from the unavoidable realities of our modern times. A more open dialogue with our children is required since we want to be the ones who educate them about trauma and loss. Children indeed feel safer when adults talk honestly about disturbing topics, at a level the child will understand. When we withhold painful information as a way of protecting our children, we inadvertently foster worry that something is happening in the world that is too frightening to speak about. When we avoid talking about an intensely emotional topic with a child, we let a child walk the tightrope of emotional regulation without a safety net.
Supporting a child shaken by the loss of a family member or a traumatic event in the school setting can be challenging for many reasons. These children often experience emotions that they have never felt before, thoughts they cannot process and memories they cannot forget. We hesitate because we do want to intrude on children’s private mourning, embarrass them, or trigger their upsetting memories. Telling children that you are available to listen when they elect to talk with you, instead, comforts a child because they feel released from the burden of holding feelings inside while attending school. They also know that someone cares and will watch out for them when they encounter difficulties.
Keeping in mind your own emotional needs and self-care will help you sustain your involvement with the child. Working with a team in your school can lessen the weight of the emotional burden and broaden the child’s support network during this turbulent time in their lives. The team can also develop plans for the long-term support of the child in collaboration with the child’s family because issues surrounding the trauma and loss will resurface at later developmental stages. Think of recovery from trauma and loss as a marathon where consistency and encouragement are most appreciated during uphill climbs during the journey.
During childhood, a majority of children will experience a disrupting experience caused by the loss of someone close to them or exposure to a traumatic event. Children can be amazingly resilient and will resume their “play, creativity and wonder” when they feel sheltered by the ongoing emotional and social support of others. A new internet-based training resource for educators developed by the Coalition to Support Grieving Students and the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement ( www.schoolcrisiscenter.org) will be available in January 2015. Hopefully, this resource will help provide educators with tools which will enhance their ability to support bereaved children. How do you currently support bereaved or traumatized children in your school/classroom?