Carefree and innocent childhoods are sometimes unfortunately interrupted by natural disasters, accidents, and other unusual circumstances that require parents to provide an extra measure of reassurance and security for their children.
Children are observant and impressionable, and they rely on their parents to make sense out of occurrences that are frightening or that they’ve never been exposed to previously.
What children need at times like these are parents and other adults who stay calm and answer their questions in an age-appropriate manner, allowing children to express fearful feelings, and then give the basic message to the child that he will be taken care of and kept safe, no matter what’s happening.
In a previous column I described the house fire I experienced in February, and because grandchildren were present at the time of the fire (innocently napping in bedrooms that were eventually damaged), I was interested to notice any lasting reactions they may have had in the aftermath of the fire.
Although the children were immediately plucked from napping and brought to neighbors without seeing any flames, they were examined later by firefighters and EMT personnel, and checked out at the hospital emergency for smoke inhalation. All of these were new and potentially troubling experiences, in addition to sadness in losing some special belongings in the fire.
Several months later, 4-year-old Lucia still uses the fire as a reference point for when she has done various activities: “Did we do that before the fire or after the fire?” However, she doesn’t seem to have any unfounded fears relating to that traumatic day. Her Mommy did a good job of staying calm, answering ongoing questions and giving reassurance.
The Santa Barbara grandchildren eventually came to see first-hand what had happened at Grammy’s house. This seemed to be an important exercise in their acceptance of an event that was frightening to hear about from a distance, and to see the outcome that with limited experience they could not have imagined.
Rather than shielding them from the disaster, it was good for the children to be able to ask their questions and express their feelings.
As they walked through the fire scene, they were visibly distraught to see the bedrooms they sleep in when visiting damaged and in disarray. Outside, they asked if they could touch the charred redwood siding. Everett wondered if the house would be fixed in time to enjoy our traditional Christmas celebrations.
After their questions were answered, we all spent time in the undamaged part of the house where we made popcorn. The children played in Grammy’s attic and we read books together. This gave them the assurance that life goes on, and we try to see the positives of every situation.
We spent time outside in the garden, noticing how the blooming roses were bringing unusual beauty in contrast to the destruction, and we talked about how grateful we all were that no one was hurt in the fire.
A beloved character from the past, Mr. Rogers, shared this advice from his own mother: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’
“To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers, so many caring people in this world.”
Parents can’t shield their children from every disturbing experience that pops up daily in the news or happens closer to home. However, parents are crucially important in guiding their children through their fears, understanding and acceptance of such events.
The most comforting message children need in a disturbing situation is that their feelings are important and are being taken seriously, and the reassurance that their parents will keep them safe.
And from wise Fred Rogers that there are “so many caring people in this world.” That has proven true in my situation, and to all of those who have graciously helped in myriad ways, I remember you with gratitude.
Jan Roberts, an educator, accomplished speaker and author, provides individual parent consultation. She has been an instructor for the Parent Education program at La Cañada Presbyterian Church for 25 years. Readers may send parent questions to TheParentCoach@sbcglobal.net.