Americans who lived through of the assassination of John F. Kennedy have vivid memories of where they were when they heard the news. A local radio station asked residents to share their stories. A person’s age at the time seemed to color their recollections.
Those who were adults remembered initial disbelief followed by concerns about the future of the country. Many recalled realizing that nothing would ever be the same.
The memories of those who were children were quite different. Children remembered seeing grown-ups cry. And it terrified them. The security of their childhood was shattered. Not by the death of a president, but by the reactions of their caregivers to that death.
It’s always that way with trauma. When the protection usually afforded by parents is breached by tragedy, children’s ability to cope is seriously threatened. Their future mental health relies on the capacity of the adults around them to restore a sense of safety and well-being.
Not much was known about trauma in the dark days following November 22, 1963. But the nation seemed to intuitively understand the need for community and social action.
Families and friends mourned together, often huddled around a black and white television. Adults wrote letters to Jackie Kennedy and encouraged their children to do the same (See Letters to Jackie: Condolences from a Grieving Nation by Ellen Fitzpatrick, 2010). Activists took up the social justice banner long associated with the Kennedy agenda.
Today’s world is perhaps more fragmented than the world of 1963. Television is no longer a shared activity. Letter writing is a lost art.
But traumatic events still happen. And children’s ability to cope with them relies on the ability of their caregivers to reassure and protect them.
Here are some ways to restore children’s sense of safety on days when it feels like nothing will ever be the same:
Respond to children’s increased need for comfort, assurance, and attention.
Be patient and calm when children are whiny, clingy, or aggressive.
Answer children’s questions about a traumatizing event in a factual manner.
Limit access to media coverage of traumatic events.
Encourage children to express their feelings about an event using art or journal writing.
Get lots of physical exercise with your child.
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