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.
ANSWER: 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
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
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
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.
- 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
- 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.
- The power of rituals to carry the pain and grief
are impactful for working through this stage of healing.
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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