Crisis In Our Lives: Healing Our Children, Healing Ourselves
by Charlotte Reznick, Ph.D.
"I dreamed that we were all asleep and then someone put our apartment on fire. I was scared. We got all our papers and went out but we couldn’t leave because they put the cars on fire. Some people were calling the police but the phone was cut. They were calling HELP POLICE but they didn’t come. So our neighbors came and help us put the fire out. So that is where I were when I waked up. I was scared."
This is Alexandra Ortiz’s dream. Night after night she wakes in fear. Is her life in danger? Will the fires and shooting start again? Alexandra is a sweet, quiet, Hispanic girl living in South Central LA - heart of the recent riot zone. Her nightmares and fears are characteristic of many children all over the city today in the aftermath of the violence.
Children’s emotional reactions to crises and disasters vary in nature and severity. Their reactions are determined by their age, previous experiences, temperament and personality, and the immediacy of the disaster to their own lives. There are, however, some commonalties in how children feel when their lives are disrupted by a disaster. General reactions include feelings of loss of control and stability, self-centered concerns (for food, safety, and clothing), and grief reactions (denial, anger, depression, bargaining, and acceptance).
One child tells how her mom complains that she is now kicking and pulling her hair in her sleep. She has no memory of this. Another boy dreams he is left alone in his house burning while everyone else in his family has escaped.
One inner city family brought all their relatives together under one roof for comfort and safety. They parked their cars on the lawn as a barrier and all slept on the floor to try to avoid bullets. Good idea, since in the morning they found their cars riddled with bullets. When can they safely return to their homes?
We may see reactions similar to the stages of grief and loss. Megan vacillates from fear to anger to denial. One day she can’t sleep and is worried about how to help her mom. She’s confused - there’s no electricity - no place to get food. She’s angry with the looters. Two days later she draws pretty pictures of her dog and new puppies as if nothing ever happened. Is this denial or hope, or a combination of both? Megan will need much time, talk, and understanding to work out her feelings.
Children may also experience guilt over being involved in some of the wrongdoing or feel real or imagined guilt that they might have caused or increased the amount of disaster because of their behavior. Bernice and Jessica (not their real names), 6th graders at an inner city school, feel "really bad" about being involved in "looting" at a local dry cleaners. They got caught up in the mob’s "get your free clothes" attitude. We talked about the possibility of them returning what they had taken to their church. Bernice goes home and dreams: "I am going to my church to return the stuff and the priest turns into a soldier and tells me it is wrong to steal and he has to kill me. I start running and trip over President Bush and they get me and tie me around a pole and blindfold me and get the guns ready to shoot me. And the priest (soldier) says ‘shoot’ and I wake up before they shoot."
Her conscience is aching. To help her own healing she does go to church and returns the clothes. The priest, although telling her stealing was not right, forgives her as she tries to make amends.
In general, the closer a child has been to the center of the violence, the more severe and long lasting their reactions may be. But because there were pockets of violence all over the city - Wilshire, Hollywood, Venice - and children often watched the intense coverage on television, the violence is as close as our living rooms, and many children of all races and cultures are suffering.
Teachers have reported that normally well-behaved kids, or those who have made a lot of progress, are buckling from the stress. Fear and confusion have been brought up. Some are hiding under tables, running through rooms, or spacing out and not concentrating. We see regression to earlier stages of development. Children with previous histories of emotional difficulty or trauma are particularly affected. One boy with a history of sexual abuse, who had been doing quite well, is again acting out sexually with classmates.
A 16-year-old adolescent boy from a middle class background in Santa Monica asks his mother if she has a gun. When she replies she doesn’t believe in them, he asks, "So you’ll just let them come in and kill you?" He sleeps on the floor edged next to the wall to protect himself from the possibility of bullets. He is terrified to return to school after several days and begs his mom: "But won’t you feel really bad if something happens to me?"
Zach, a middle class, 7 year old boy who does not live anywhere near the trouble was exposed to the violence on television. He went to his backyard and found a big stick to protect his family from the "bad men." Lately, he is more and more aggressive - toward his younger brother and in talking back to his parents. Zach is not aware of his change in behavior or his underlying feelings.
How Can We
Help Heal Our Children?
How can we help heal our children? How can we heal ourselves? All this horror awakens us to the need for true universal acceptance, compassion, love, and people working together to effect positive change. Before we can love, accept, or even get along with another, we must start with ourselves. Each of us has the responsibility to look within, seek professional assistance as needed to face our own demons, heal, and move on to "make this world a better place."
You as parents must help start the healing process with your children. Tell them as honestly as you can what has happened. Answer their questions. Listen to them tell their stories about what they saw and felt. Let them draw and write these feelings. There is a catharsis and healing in the retelling and releasing of what they keep inside. Try to recognize the underlying feelings in their words and actions. "It makes us mad to think about all the people and homes that were hurt by this riot" or "I can see you are feeling really sad about what happened" helps the children and you clarify feelings. Provide as much comfort and stability as you can with your love, nurturing, and acceptance. "We are together" - "We care about you" - "We will take care of you" - goes a long way.
We can also heal by gaining a sense of control over ourselves. When we do something positive and productive with a sense of purpose we assert our power, and help our children assert theirs. You might plan something practical that your child can do to help. For example, they can assist with the clean up, make sandwiches and deliver them to the hungry, write to our policemen and fireman thanking them for helping protect us, write to children of similar ages through a school in the riot-torn areas, or write to politicians about changes that need to be made.
Encourage your children to imagine a better world and how they can be part of it. Through guided visualization techniques children can ask "inside" themselves what is the message to learn, what needs to be done to heal our city, and what is their part in it. They are able to create in their mind’s eye a new, more beautiful world filled with hope and promise.
"All races come together", Alex’s drawing of black, white, brown, and yellow smiling faces, with the sun shining above, tells all. Similarly, Jarrell’s new world is a rainbow - where all colors support each other. Alvasha’s advice is "Please people don’t fight and ruin Los Angeles." Iris’ message is that the community must come back together and be very clean, peaceful, with all as friends.
Mark first drew a black and white striped zebra that had been killed and eaten. Clearly, the stripes and death are a metaphor for our racial conflict. Taking one step toward healing, and using positive imagery, Mark was able to see new zebras (blacks and whites) growing up and living in harmony.
Children are bruised by crisis. But they can also heal quickly if given the chance to explore their feelings. Children can also help us, "the grown-ups", to heal. Listen finally to the words of Elesse: "We shall love each other. We shall clean up LA. We shall be peaceful and be peacemakers. Love is in the air."
(Special thanks to the children of 75th St. School in Los Angeles for their assistance and insight.)
Originally Published in:
Whole Life Times, June 1992
Under the title of "Aftermath Of A Riot: Healing Our Children, Healing Ourselves"