It was mid-day on September 11, 2001. The planes had hit the World Trade Center and the Pentagon three hours earlier , and it was feeling like the end of the world. My colleagues and I were scrambling to answer phone calls from anxious clients, family members, and friends when one of my associates called from the field. She had received a telephone call from a friend of hers at the United Nations, requesting any documents or research we had on helping children cope with tragic situations. There were pieces of articles I had written and notes for articles I had hoped to write, but nothing specific to the caller’s request. All I could say was that I would do my best to pull some concepts together and forward some guidelines to the UN. I closed the door to my office, and over several hours allowed my own thoughts and fears to pour through my fingers onto my laptop. Writing a document to help people respond to questions that really had no answers, proved remarkably therapeutic and cathartic; I realized I needed some perspective on my own feelings, and a means of guiding people through the madness of the day. The mission to assuage people’s fear and anxiety kept me feeling productive and less personally afraid. I could have used days or weeks to write everything I wanted to say, but the UN caller was clear about her urgent deadline: she needed my document before the close of the school day. I sent her what I had, with minimal time to proofread what I wrote, no frame of mind to add a pithy title, and buffeted by the senseless reality of the day. Later that afternoon, I heard that the UN had distributed my document, “Children’s Reactions to Stress”, to the schools of New York City to help children, their families, and their teachers understand in some small measure how to cope with feeling scared and unsafe. Without the use of the Internet, the document went “viral” the old-fashioned way: from New York, copies were faxed to other cities; and from the UN, paper copies were mailed to other countries.
Ten years later, “Children’s Reactions to Stress” has become a comforting reference to parents and teachers seeking to explain the unexplainable to their children, and to better understand the wonders of child development. The solace readers seem to get from the article is that we are all more resilient than we think we are in the weakness of our weakest moment.
If I were to summarize the document’s key points, I would say there are five factors we should acknowledge when we try to help children and even adults deal with frightening situations:
1. Children and teens reflect and absorb the cues and reactions of the adults that surround them; project whatever leadership you can muster – be as calm and comforting as you can be, controlling what you can control even though you may feel you have no control at all.
2. During a frightening situation, children and adults both resort to the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs in asking themselves whether their basic needs for safety and security will be met; assure and reassure that you will do the best you can to protect your children.
3. Provide an extra measure of hugs for children and other adults.
4. Communicate, think, and plan with other adults in the child’s immediate circle: family members, teachers, clergy, doctors.
5. As opposed to the dictum “don’t let them see you sweat”, it is not contrary to the previous four points to allow children to see your emotions; but try not to fall completely apart in front of your children when they need you most; to the extent that you can, divert your full emotional reaction to a more private setting or the company of other adults.
I hope you will never need to apply the teachings in “Children’s Reactions to Stress”, but if you do, I hope it gives you at least a modicum of strength in the face of adversity and fear.
Written by Dr. Richard Levin, President of Richard Levin & Associates. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. To download a copy of “Children’s Reactions to Stress” please visit http://richardlevinassociates.com/publications.html