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Helping Sensitive 6 Year Old
Through 3 Major Crises

QUESTION: My son who is 6.5 years old is bright, but overly sensitive. He seems to give up easy and cries easily.

When he was 3, his sister was born, followed a week later by the Northridge earthquake which destroyed our community and greatly damaged our condo. A year later my wife was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and has relapsed frequently with severe bouts of blindness, double vision, vertigo and weakness. At this time she is holding her own but she is now blind in one eye and its permanent.

I try to be sensitive to his needs, but sometimes I am overwhelmed myself. I have tried to instill confidence in him and support, but I feel that I've failed him. I want to help and get help for him professionally speaking but don't know what to do next. Any suggestions would be appreciated.

You are doing a wonderful job as a father! You not only appreciate your son's intelligence, but have concern regarding his difficult experiences of the last 3 years. Your sensitivity to your son's needs and intent to support him are signs of courage and "good" parenting on your part. You are entering a phase of healing, following disequilibrium. This represents a new phase in your family's development.

Given that you have been in a position of "holding it all together" it is likely that you need to attend to healing and recharging your own emotional batteries at this time. This will help you to have more of a buffer when your son breaks down and cries easily. Keep in mind, too, that the good news may be that he is crying right now. It may be that it is the first time that multiple crisis have abated and the environment is settled enough that he can begin to grieve and feels safe enough to "fall apart".

"Falling apart" is necessary to some degree in order to reorganize the psyche after significant experiences of loss or change. Personal identity is shattered to a degree and must be resurrected. You have all come through multiple traumas any one of which would have caused great emotional upheaval in your family. Any family would be reverberating in the wake of such enormous change. The timing of subsequent losses following the momentous change of adding a second child to your family did not allow for a "breather". But now it is time to turn your energies towards healing.

Check into public and/or private community programs in your area that may still exist that center on healing the trauma for earthquake victims. Several community programs sprung up in the San Francisco Bay Area, following the Oakland firestorm of '91. Art and gardening projects helped bring many families together to recover. A ceramic tile project in which each family produced a tile of their experience of the event is now a public piece of work displayed at the Rockridge Bart (Bay Area Rapid Transit) system in Oakland, California. The artwork helped to bring people together to share, grieve and re-integrate a part of their lives they had lost. Community gardens also helped many people express the pain that words alone could not contain.

Your family might benefit greatly from family counseling focused on recovery from the enormity of change and loss you have all experienced these past 3 years. Enrolling in community art programs or finding some avenue of emotional expression to release the pain, will help you to grieve so that you can develop greater strength from your experience. Naturally, child therapy aimed at working through these issues in play therapy can also be highly productive for your son.

Plan on devoting the next year to recovery. Talk with your wife about the possibility of having a family meeting simply acknowledging and reviewing the last three years. Perhaps each of you could start by simply drawing something that expresses your feelings about this period of time. Take turns sharing your drawing and what it represents. Rituals like this can bring you closer and open up avenues for processing the experience together as a family. Go slow, do not rush the process. Simply express one feeling each, listen and accept each member's feelings without recrimination or "fixing". Later you might want to take a trip to the site of the old house, followed by a positive experience of walking on the beach and throwing something that represents your pain into the ocean with a wish for the future. If the thought of this kind of processing through ritual or talking together brings up intense anxiety, seek professional family counseling to resolve your own feelings as a couple before attempting to support and guide your children.

This time period has represented half of your son's life and your entire daughter's life span. However, that will not always be the case. As years pass, this time period will be significantly less overwhelming. Healing will take place gradually, but as the trauma of the past is mastered, strength and depth of character will replace the emotional fragmentation your son is now displaying when frustrated.

Research on recovery from trauma suggests three guidelines for families:

  1. It is critical for parents to share grief with their children in a manner that allows them to feel the healing power of the "group' or "tribe" but does not burden them with resolving parental pain.

  2. Open communication which allows for a full range of emotions (anger, grief, relief, despair, guilt) facilitates adjustment to change. This includes acceptance of differences in how individual family members grieve and what they feel. For example it is common for men to grieve miscarriage differently than women. Pressure to feel "the same" inhibits adjustment. Acceptance of the range and differences in feelings promotes healing.

  3. The power of rituals to carry the pain and grief are impactful for working through this stage of healing.
Research on families of holocaust victims revealed to us that it was the families who talked about the past that were capable of transforming deep levels of despair into future capacity for coping, living and loving. Children who came from families in which their parents did not express and continue to process the tragedy as it came up in family life, experienced greater degrees of dysfunction, particularly depression. Repression breeds depression. Expression is the antidote to dysfunction following trauma.

Do not be afraid or condemn yourself for your son's emotionality. The fact that he is showing it to you means he feels safe to let down his guard. He needs to "fall apart" a bit, be safely held in his sorrow, and gradually build his confidence and ability to cope with daily stresses. Play therapy can provide a safe and healing framework for such release of emotional tensions and reintegration

"Healing" literally means to "make whole". It derives from the old English "hoelan" which means to synthesize or reintegrate Any kind of artistic expression can prove highly valuable for processing deep loss and change. Because, at first our experience may be too deep for words. Putting poetry, drawings, gardening or music to our feelings can help us cope with them. Eventually feelings that are released give birth to new thoughts and perceptions which allow for a stronger sense of self.

Consider constructing or getting professional help creating your own meaningful family and/or personal rituals during this next year. Congratulate yourselves on how well you have coped through enormous change! Cry together, laugh together and have joy together. Future years will serve to show you the value and strength of family healing. Make this process one that brings you closeness instead of distance. But do not forget your own need for support and healing. Through taking care of yourself you will gain the strength and patience to better serve your son.


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Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

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