Monday, February 1, 2010

It Hurts Us More Than it Hurts Them

A brief update from the Associated Press alerted us today that the Stepping Stones Childcare Center on the north side of Indianapolis has reopened.  You may recall that an SUV driven by two robbery suspects crashed into the front room of the center in December, critically injuring one child and injuring three others and a staff member less seriously.  Repairs are complete and all of the injured children are expected to return to the center now that it has reopened.

There is something very powerful about returning to the place where something traumatic occurred.  Depending on where you are in your healing process, going to the scene of the incident can be very distressing, or it can be a sign of victory over the fear that the incident caused.  The children who witnessed the accident or were hurt in it, in this case, are three years old and may not really remember the details of what happened unless someone has talked to them about it quite a bit.  The residual effects of the crash for these kids, if there are any, are less likely to come in the form of being afraid of the space where it happened and more likely to come in the form of an overall anxiety about their safety.

The adults -- both the staff and the parents -- are another story.  They remember what happened and some of them undoubtedly were really affected by it.  Those who witnessed the accident might feel triggered by working in that space again.  Hopefully, all of the staff have had a chance to be in there without the kids before today's opening.

In my experience, most parents bringing their kids back to school after something frightening has happened and been resolved are OK with it.  Some may feel a little anxious, but they also are able to tell themselves that their fears aren't really rational -- the chances of another SUV crashing through the wall are very small.  Those who are more anxious, however, don't usually come right out and say it.  What they do say is that their child is anxious, and often the child is.  The parent in these cases has talked to the child in a way that interferes with both of their natural processing of the event.  A parent might say to a child, for example,
Daycare is opening back up on Monday.  You know, it's been closed because of that scary accident where all those kids got hurt, remember?  That was really frightening.  It's going to be really frightening to go back, isn't it.

Before you accuse me of exaggerating, I must tell you that I have heard conversations similar to this many times between parents and kids.  The parent will tell you that she is just acknowledging their child's fears, but in fact they are planting their own fears in their child.  They are telling their child not just that they accept their feelings, but that they expect them to be scared.  Children are pretty good at living up to our expectations.

Acknowledging children's feelings sounds a little different than that example.  A parent who is responding rather than influencing might say,
Daycare is opening back up on Monday.  It's been closed for a long time.  How do you think you'll feel when you go back?
Now the door is open for the child to say something if she's feeling anxious, but also allowing for the possibility -- even the probability -- that the child will be happy going back. 

Anxious parents make for anxious children, and in a situation like this the adults are probably a lot more concerned than the kids.  After a traumatic incident, we need to make space for kids to be impacted.  We also need to remember to make space for them to be fine.


Colleen said...

I've watched parents who are afraid of dogs *make* their child afraid. And when someone else works with said child and a well trained dog, as soon as the child starts to get comfortable with the dog, relax, and start bossing the dog around, and get excited when the dog obeys (these are well-trained dogs!)...the mother starts making noises, and moving, and grabbing at the child, startling the kid, and you can *see* the regression and fear coming back!

I prefer it when the parent says, "I'm afraid, and I don't want you doing that", than doing it sneakily and projecting the fear without admitting it...although it's better still when they say, "I'm afraid because of what happened to me when I was young, so I can't teach you properly, therefore I want to teach you, so that you will learn correctly, and not have this problem. Those parents are rare though...

At least I almost trust a 12 yr old girl to keep her horse from biting me on the neck....if she's holding him, but not if she's mounted. I have others take my kids up to horses...

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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
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