By Eliya Stromberg, PhD –
In the past few weeks there have seen terrorist/violent incidents all over the world: London, Manchester, Melbourne, the Philippines, Florida, Ohio and Indiana in the United States, and the never-ending carnage in Syria, Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan.
The news repeats the stories, replays the videos and pictures and blathers endless commentaries on radio, TV screens and mobile phones. The news penetrates everywhere.
And, understandably, people talk about the events that have occurred.
Very often, children in the background listen to the talk and see the images. If they are typical children they will ask questions and seek clarification of what they hear and see.
But if they are like our children, who are limited in their understanding of the world around them and sometimes unable to communicate easily what they think and feel, the images they see, the words and tone of voice they hear may create in them confusion and anxiety that we don’t recognize.
One of my sons has Down syndrome. He is 26. He listens to the news on his radio in his apartment. He hears what is reported about events around the world and in Israel. He gets a heavy dose of “terrorist” coverage.
Ever since he was boy he has been drawn to all things about the police, the army, ambulances and medics (having had some personal experience with this particular group), bombs, terrorists and warfare. Partly it is typical “boy” fascination. But partly it is a consequence of his limited understanding of the world he lives in.
He is drawn to people and things that represent “power” (which a boy with limitations wants to have). At age 5 or 6 his first Purim costume was a policeman’s uniform, and has continued be a police uniform every year since then, right up to this last Purim (at age 25). Because he is always “in need” he may be attracted to knowing about victims of terror and violence so he can shift the focus of need onto others and feel less needy himself.
Since he wants to feel powerful, he never admits to feeling threatened by any danger. If there is a terrorist attack in the neighborhood he says he will “take out” the terrorist using krav maga (a martial arts form developed in Israel). Any mention of a thief elicits a claim that he can catch him. He never expresses fear for himself, but is very fearful that something may happen to me or his mother. If we are not here (G-d forbid), who will care for him, he probably wonders. He may also harbor some unconscious fear for his personal safety given how dependent he is on others for his care and for explaining how the world works. So he is always “in tune” to news about illness, tragedies and terrorism and its proximity to home.
When he hears something he latches onto it. He asks about it repeatedly. If he has the opportunity to view images (which, fortunately, is not too often), he will examine every detail and want to know “what happened,” “who is fighting,” “was the terrorist killed,” and on and on and on. He asks many questions. And he will ask a particular question that troubles him many times over in the course of a conversation. He clearly is trying to understand situations that confuse him. On some deep level he may be grappling with how to explain violence, suffering, pain and death, none of which makes sense to his gentle, accepting, loving relationship to others.
How do I talk to my son about terrorism and tragedy?
I give him basic facts in answer to what he asks me. I don’t give him more information than he asks for. I never tell him nasty details. I speak with words he knows and understands.
If he asks me “could this happen here,” or “to us” or “to me” I tell him the truth. I say, “It could but it is unlikely; now the police and the army are working extra hard to stop people from doing these things.” Since he lives in the world with G-d, I reassure him that G-d is watching out for him and the whole family.
I repeat my answers to him as many times as he asks. But always in a calm, reassuring voice.
I validate his feelings, whatever they are. But I do not give him the words to describe how he feels. I want to know how he really feels and not to hear him merely repeat the words I use. I stay with him and I ask him questions to focus his attention on his feelings until he can articulate them.
I let him know how I feel about the situation he is asking about. This helps him develop a sense of perspective and security.
I try as best as I can to avoid talking about tragic events if he is present. When he is present I am careful how I talk so as not to arouse confusion and fear.
The human brain is vulnerable to images, sounds and words, which go deep into our memory and consciousness. To say my son is “sensitive” is a major understatement. He hears and sees things that are not healthy to his spirit and confuse his thoughts. It is naive to believe that because our children have limited abilities they are not affected by what they hear and see and “understand” from others. And given how saturated the world is with negative, destructive sights and sounds, it is impossible to totally shield our children.
But we can listen to them. And encourage them to share their thoughts and feelings. We can be patient as they struggle to find the words. We can explain the facts in a language they understand. And reassure them that it is highly unlikely anything will happen to them or to us because G-d, the police and army are protecting us.
Then do something special to have fun or eat a big bowl of ice cream with your child. Show them that everything is OK.
Eliya Stromberg, PhD, lives with his wife in Jerusalem. They have three children and several grandchildren. Their second child has Down syndrome. He lives in an assisted-living apartment in a community that is a model for inclusion in Israel. Dr. Stromberg has been a classroom teacher of both typical and children and adolescents with special needs. He was a public school and Jewish day school principal, and university lecturer to graduate students in education. He writes for and speaks to fathers and couples and teaches them how to reframe their situation to see what is good. Meet him at www.fathersconnect.com and contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.