Laura Russell, Ph.D., Archive  

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How do I help my children overcome severe traumas?

Q. My children (ages 5 & 9) watched their dad die of a heart attack on the 4th of July, 1999, while first I, and then the paramedics were unsuccessful in saving him. (They were 4 & 8 at the time). They both received some counseling and seem to be doing fine. We talk about their dad often and remember the good times. They believe their dad is in heaven. 

The biggest effect I see is that they become very fearful if I'm late picking them up from school, afraid that I've been in an accident. I've become very careful about letting them know if I'm going to be late, if I can. 

Also, my son (9) saw a man jump to his death from a 90 foot tower about a month ago. The police were trying to talk him down when he just jumped. My son's response was "I'm happy for him, it's what he wanted to do."

The school counselor talked to him and said he seemed to be unmoved by what he saw. Was this a defense mechanism? What concerns, if any, should I have about my kids and these experiences? 

A. It sounds like you have been handling the situation with your children quite well. I commend you on your careful parenting. 

Here are some of the issues you have automatically handled in a healthy fashion. 

Trauma de-briefing: Children and adults have within them the complete capacity to recover from the most awful experiences. If they live in an open family system, they know that they can talk about their thoughts and feelings safely. They know they can talk to you about their dad, and express their sadness. You have handled your grief in such a way as to make it safe for your entire family to express it. This is superb. 

Normal grief work is what you are doing with your children. You talk about the good times, what you miss, the special days, and honor the person who is gone. This too is excellent. 

My thinking on the fears your children have is that they, too, are normal. It seems logical to me, and probably to you as well, that your children would worry a bit more if you have to be late. By letting them know about your possible lateness when you can, you are again doing the very best that can be done in these circumstances. 
You didnít mention it, but you are probably doing this too. If your children can express their fears without worrying about upsetting you, they can work through them. Thus, if you are late, and couldnít give them notice, they can be upset with you (politely). This way, they can still work through the difficulties they have with their worry that you are not coming back. 

Your sonís second trauma

1.     I wouldnít worry too much about the feedback from your childís school counselor. Instead, if you are still concerned, you could return to the counselor who helped your family when your husband first passed away.

2.     Donít jump to conclusions about your sonís reactions at this point. Instead, I would continue the healthy environment you are providing him. You already make room for your children to talk about and feel painful feelings.† 

3.     Children do not have the language to express their traumas like adults. They normally express them in their play and art. Your son only has the language and thinking skills of a nine year old. So we cannot expect him to talk about and work through what he witnessed like you or I would.† 

4.     To assist him you could encourage him to draw and play what he feels. When my son was three years old, before I began my training as a therapist, we had family drawing and talking times. One time he was traumatized but I didnít have a clear picture of what had happened. We drew pictures together and talked until this incident burst out of him. I didnít have to question him, just listen and talk with him about what he was drawing.† 

 5.     You donít really have to make a production of it. If given the tools, a concerned listener and a safe environment, children automatically play and draw and talk about what hurts them. You can encourage him by simply providing him with new art materials, or starting a family drawing or painting and talking time.† 

6.     In my office I buy specific toys geared toward their trauma. For example, I have several sets of emergency vehicles or a doctorís kit for children to play with. There are toy hospitals with all sorts of movable people. Today, they now have these created in legos for children to build themselves. You could purchase these kinds of toys, again without a big production. Children will gravitate toward the toys they need for play to de-brief their trauma.† 

You are doing a very good job. Worry is, unfortunately, a normal burden of concerned parents. Keep up the good work!


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