National Catastrophes: What do children need?
By Karen Lenzi, MA

If the photographs and television reports of the devastation and human suffering caused by Katrina are disturbing to you – what must they be like for your child? How do we reconcile the disruption to our and our children’s sense of safety in the face of unpredictable circumstances – natural and manmade? If we take the time to become aware of our own feelings, we will be better able to understand what our children may be experiencing and help them navigate their experiences in a healthy way.

So how do you feel? Anxious? Fascinated? Fearful? Angry? Are you glued to every television news report? Do you pour over the latest newspaper headlines and photographs that display the best and worst of humanity? For adults, our process for managing difficult and threatening feelings may include a desire to learn as much as we can about the threat, what happened, the heroic and tragic stories. As grown ups, we have a context for knowing that most of us are unlikely to be in a similar situation. With the scope of the recent disasters challenging our country, even adults however, may be having trouble reclaiming their sense of safety. Are we aware of how our feelings of vulnerability play out with others? Are we able to hold our emotions in ways that recognize how uncertain our lives are while not burdening our children with worries?

Children are the center of their own universe, and the larger world has little importance unless it impacts them directly. Many children will appear not to have noticed much about Katrina, or not to care. It simply hasn’t impacted their day-to-day routine. Other children might ask questions which indicate that their small lives feel threatened. “Will a hurricane or tornado come? Is our house safe? Will you come and get me?” It will be helpful for you to answer those questions thoughtfully, and with careful attention to the child’s underlying concern for themselves, “Will I be o.k.?” “Will you be there to take care of me?” In words and actions we want to assure them that, while life is uncertain, you and others will make sure they are safe.

We intuitively know that the loss of a parent is, for a child, nearly insurmountable. And, we know that the fear of losing a parent is a very real concern for children. Perhaps we can even hear echoes of that fear from our own childhood. Early anxiety and fear may be at the core of some of our adult behaviors when we feel threatened. So what can we do to help manage our anxiety if it gets stirred up – especially by how recent events have come so graphically and directly into our homes?

We start by noticing our feelings and letting those feelings inform us about what our children may be experiencing. We soften our hearts and let our children lean on us a little extra for a time. While we can’t assume that all the members of our family are feeling the same thing, we can listen deeply to whatever they are saying. We can be honest, gentle and available to talk with our children, at a level that is appropriate and without overwhelming them with too much information. We can demonstrate empathy and understanding of people’s suffering, “It must be very hard for the people who have had to leave their homes. Can you imagine what that would be like?” We don’t need to minimize or sugar coat what has happened – but neither do we allow our need to know overwhelm our children. We can manage our desire to blame someone. Adult anger can be misunderstood by children as something for which they are responsible. We don’t relieve our anxiety by working out frustrations all over our children – or even in front of them.

At home we can limit the amount and type of radio and television to which the children are exposed. We can shift our focus from the detailed drama and instead focus on mobilizing ourselves and our children to be active in helping. You might help a concerned child to channel their feelings into something tangible. A lemonade stand to raise money for the families affected in a catastrophe, donating a special toy, or serving food at a shelter are positive actions that incorporate values of empowerment, empathy and community. Volunteering is good for all of us.

We can relax, share time and recharge with our children. A home tuned to a steady diet of television news creates a space that may be over-stimulating for children and parents alike. We want our homes to be nurturing. We might slow down our schedules and create space for family members to putter together, soaking up feelings of safety, kindness and caring.

Our children are very sensitive to our emotional states. National catastrophes touch us at the core of our being, where our feelings of vulnerability and helplessness are still very much alive. When we look to understand our own emotions, we can do a better job of providing a genuine and safe translation of the experience for our children.

If you or your child are experiencing anxiety, fear, depression or anger that is affecting your daily lives, it might be appropriate to seek professional support. Please don’t hesitate to contact the Maria Droste Counseling Center where qualified individuals work with adults, children, couples and families on many issues. Asking for help when you need it is a sign of strength.

Karen Lenzi is a private psychotherapist at Maria Droste Counseling Center. She holds a Masters Degree in Transpersonal Counseling Psychology from Naropa University and uses psychodynamic and contemplative approaches that build on the health inherent in each person. Ms. Lenzi has a special interest in the development of early attachment between parents and young children and she provides counseling for new parents, and parents and toddlers.