by Marilynn Halas on January 15th, 2013
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When I was growing up I spent my summers in Northern Ireland during what was euphemistically called the Troubles.  It was tumultuous time in history and for me as well. While I was there I witnessed the atrocities of violence on an almost daily basis.  There were moments when I felt overwhelmed, fearful and very, very sad.  There were moments when I wondered if I could ever feel safe.  There were also moments when I knew that everything would be all right again.


The recent events in Newtown, Connecticut, shattered the innocence of so many.  The precious young lives that were ripped from us have left a scar and a raw ache that have changed us.  We are not the same and that it okay; we shouldn’t be.  Together we are moving through a crisis that will always be a pivotal moment.  Life will neatly divide between the before and the after.  Of that there can be no question.  What remains in question is how we will emerge.


I think most of us would agree that we hope our families will emerge closer and even stronger than we were before.  Perhaps we hope to maintain the surge of gratitude for our own family that comingled with our initial shock.  At the very least many of us long to return to that blissful normal where children slaughtered in their classrooms was still unthinkable rather than a hellacious memory.  The question isn’t really what we long for; but rather how do we get there?  How can we move our family from fear to security and from overwhelmed to empowered?


I think the first step is to remember a little something about steel.  Steel is incredibly strong and flexible and it gets that way from being formed in a fiery cauldron.  Strength and even beauty can come from pain so white hot that it burns, pain like what the people of Newtown have been forced to endure.


During times of crisis and violence I believe moms and dads are the first line of defense against the emotional scarring that turn a child’s world upside down.  Moms and dads are the ones who must often break the news, dry the tears and find a way help their children feel safe again and grow a little stronger.


In some cases, professional intervention is the best route, but in many others children can overcome their fears with the consistent support of their families.  So how can we offer that support?  Begin at the beginning.


Breaking the news

When a tragedy occurs and we must tell our children what has happened, there are simple steps that can make a big difference.  It’s not easy to see our kids uncomfortable and no one wants to see them cry, but when you have bad news to deliver we need to look our child in the eye.  Kneel down in front of your little one or sit down next to him or her on the couch.  Put one hand over your child’s and wrap the other arm around him or her.  Communicate the news with gentle words, but communicate your love and support with body language.

When knights of the realm wanted to show their allegiance to the king, they got down on one knee.  There is a reason that we smile when a man proposes to his sweetheart on bended knee.  We are hardwired to understand the messages behind the body language.  Kneeling means I am not leaving you, I don’t have one foot out the door because there is trouble, I am here for the duration.


When you wrap your arms around your child you literally “have his or her back”.   All of this nonverbal communication makes hard news more bearable for your child.


Keep the discussion age appropriate and TRUTHFUL

Only a parent can decide what and how much their child should know.  Speak calmly, clearly and honestly.  This is the information age and media is everywhere.  You don’t have to tell a child every detail, but be sure that the information you choose to share is true.  This is an opportunity to build trust and showing your child that he or she can count on you to be supportive and truthful, goes a long way toward helping a child cope.


Watch, listen and learn

Just as you communicate with words and body language, so do your kids.  Tears or downcast eyes?  Trembling or clenched fists? All of these will show you how your child copes in a crisis.  This is valuable information that will help you support your child over the course of a lifetime.


Use the numbers

Point out that there was one bad man, but there were upwards of one hundred people who rushed to help.  Remind your children that the bad man is gone, but the helpers remain and they are willing and able to support, help and protect the community.  Loan your child your perspective, let them know that there was one terrible day and it is over now and there are many, many more happy days yet to come.


Let your child process the event in his or her own way and at his or her own pace

Older kids may look for logic and grasp for control over a situation that is devoid of both.  That is okay.  Let your teenager process this event in his or her own way.  Exercise, journal, spend time with the family, talk about it or not talk…yet.  All of these are normal and healthy coping mechanisms.  Support you child and remember older children need and want your support as desperately as little ones, but it might be harder for them to let you know. So, stay close and don’t be afraid to reach out.


Remember that expression leads to empowerment

When your child is ready let him or her express their feelings through words, art, music, volunteerism or story.  The magical alchemy of childhood is the ability to transform pain into growth. When your child is ready to express his or her feelings constructively and healthfully, that is progress.


The Newtown Massacre destroyed our innocence and left us with a gaping hole in our hearts, but together we will fill our hearts with the memories of the fallen and the promise of honoring their lives in the future.  Together we will hold onto each other and begin to heal.  This fiery cauldron will forge new and stronger families and communities wrapped up in shining ribbons as strong as steel.


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