Dr. Janice Cohn, a psychotherapist, specializes in helping children deal with violence in their lives. A consultant to schools and the New Jersey Department of Education, she developed the Heroes Project, which helps kids focus on compassion and moral courage. Her books include "Raising Compassionate, Courageous Children in a Violent World" and "The Christmas Menorahs: How a Town Fought Hate." She spoke with Beliefnet family producer Wendy Schuman about why some children are showing little emotion in the wake of the terrorist attacks.
Parents understand their kids' tears, nightmares, and being afraid, but what do you do when your kid just looks at you and says, "Can I play soccer now?"
Often children seem to lack compassion. I've been giving presentations at schools and parents' places of work, and I'm hearing this more and more-"My child doesn't seem to show any emotion and seems to be very blasé." These are parents who try very hard to instill a sense of empathy and compassion in their children, and they're thinking, "What is going on?"
There's a clinical term called "omission of affect." When children are dealing with very scary things, they don't show emotion. Especially with younger kids, 6, 7, and 8, the ego gets overwhelmed with things that are scary. It's almost always temporary and usually lasts only a few weeks after an event. But just because they're acting that way now, it doesn't mean they won't react later. And we're in for a long haul in terms of our military response.
If children don't seem to show any emotion, the most important thing is not to pressure them to do this. Everybody reacts to things in their own way, even children. Some may want to talk about this constantly, some will want to donate all their toys. Others will seem completely unmoved, but they're dealing with it internally-or shutting off their feelings. So parents need to use it as a teachable moment-"I accept and understand you don't want to talk about it right now. But if you want to talk about it later and if you have any questions, I'm right here." Let the child know that you're there for them when they want to talk, not when you feel it's a good time.
A mom told me about her nine-year-old who kept whining and complaining about her homework when her mother was clearly upset about the people killed in the World Trade Center. Should parents express anger that kids are bringing up things that seem so trivial?
Children, like us, are feeling helpless. The first thing children think about is themselves-children are self-centered, and that's normal and natural. Some kids are super-empathic from the crib. Others keep it in. Others are worried about what's going to happen to them. If you're worried about yourself and your parents, it's hard to go the next step and worry about other people. Children understand things according to their development and what unresolved issues there are in their lives.
Kids really turn off to lectures and criticism. Instead of saying, "You're insensitive and you acted in the wrong way," it's more effective to say, "Let's think together. This terrible thing has happened. Some daddies and mommies are missing, many firemen and policemen were killed. If this happened to you, how would you want people to help?" I like to make this concrete for kids.
Don't make them feel guilty that they don't seem upset enough. That's not going to help anybody. When kids get criticized because they're not being compassionate enough, that causes anger and resentment. It's counterproductive. You don't want to make your children feel guilty or that there's something wrong with them.
Don't kids sometimes show what they're feeling nonverbally?
Yes, parents may find that kids are acting out in their play. Younger children might have more violent play. Or kids may have nightmares and find it hard to sleep. Often they regress to younger behavior-they may wet the bed again. Some kids are dealing with the concept of death, others with safety, others with "bad guys." It's going to be kid issues, not terrorism, that affect their daily lives. It might be that they know how to say, "I'm upset about my homework," but they don't know how to talk about these other issues.
What kind of memories can we give our children about this? Is it in our power to control what they get from these events?
You cannot reassure children that this will never happen again. What's most helpful is to talk about the acts of heroism, because this is how children learn compassion. Talk about instances of people helping each other, carrying down a coworker who had a sprained ankle. Focus on the rescue workers. Every human event, no matter how horrendous, always has acts of heroism. Second, find something for them to do that will help others, and don't make it an adult thing. I've never heard a child say, "I don't want to help." That would be extremely rare.
Usually one of the ways they can start to be able to talk about how they feel is through the activities that help some of the people affected. I don't think you have to put children on the spot where they have to explain themselves. Parents have mentioned to me that kids were acting inappropriately at the homes of neighbors who had a missing husband or wife. The kids were acting silly or laughing. This is often what happens when children are grieving or upset. They get silly, hyperactive, and misbehave at a sad time. The thing to say is, "This is a hard time for Mrs. Smith. What would happen if you were sad and someone was laughing or giggling. How would that make you feel?"
It's never good to try to teach children values by using guilt. Once children get involved in helping behavior they want to do more. Have them put themselves in another's shoes, show them how they can make a difference. That's how you develop sensitivity to others, not by embarrassing them or making them feel guilty. Parents mean well, but it backfires.