By Rabbi Dr. Dovid Fox
Director, Project Chai, Chai Lifeline
A quiet neighborhood in Monsey has been shaken by an attack that one would never anticipate. A family home, a rabbinic home, was entered by a stranger armed with a machete; by the time he fled in his car, many victims were seriously wounded and many witnessed the horror, children in shock and a neighborhood imperiled as the police department scrambled to track this monster and capture him.
An assault is always overwhelming to those who hear about it, and exponentially so to those who were present, those who are close by, family, relatives, friends. Our Project Chai interventionists from the Monsey area and from other parts of New York were immediately mobilized.
The attack is additionally frightening because our community is still reeling from the Jersey City terrorism. While we daven for the injured and we turn to Shamayim for rachamim, let us address our immediate roles with our children and our families, our students, and ourselves.
It is no surprise and it is entirely understandable that the words “stabbing victims” are enough to grip people with fright, with nausea, with images of the crime scene, and with worries about safety. It is particularly worrisome for parents in the Monsey area, in view of the fresh memory of another recent attack. The questions coming in to our crisis hotline are to be expected: “Should we not let our children go outside now?” “What do I tell my child when he or she cries and is scared?” “How do I explain this to my family, when we look at who these victims are, where it happened, and that it happened at all in the middle of Chanukah when we recall ‘resha’im b’yad tzaddikim?’”
First, a word to parents. Remember that the image which you model for your children is key. Your children look at you for encouragement, for the security that you offer them, and they gauge your words and reactions fairly accurately. While it is normal for your own distress to seep through as you try to absorb and to process what you are hearing and reading, your young ones need to see that you are calm with them, not irritable, showing them patience and reassurance, and allow them to express their fear, their worry, their sadness, their physical reactions. Listen to them. Sit with them. This is always your most important tool when your children turn to you. Do a lot of listening. Encourage them to vocalize their personal reactions. Do not try to talk them out of thinking their thoughts or feeling their emotions. Rather, give them perspective by validating that the news is indeed scary, and feeling scared is how we react when we learn of fearful events. If you validate their disclosures, they will open up further, and they will feel trust in your openness, and will then be more receptive as you offer them reassurance. A mistake we often make as well-meaning parents is when we want to stop the fears, stop the tears, quell the panic; yet, when we try to comfort a child when he or she is distraught, they feel misunderstood and will either hide their true experiences from parents or their reactions will actually escalate. So, hear them, validate, soothe them with your gentle behavior and affection, and then when they seem to be breathing easier, you can address the matter more “practically” with recommendations.
You can offer factual information to a child if that is what they seek, but keep their age, maturity, and current emotional state in mind. You do not have to tell every child every detail. You do not have to make up happy endings to placate them. Use reasonable judgment in determining whether or not the streets will be safe, and if a child is clingy at first, wary of going out, show them tolerance and not ridicule. The schools are likely to increase their watchfulness and security systems, and your child should know this, and should also be reassured that you are looking out for them … and will look out as well for yourselves. At times, especially when an attack has victimized adults, children will worry about their own parents’ safety. Do not brush that concern away, but rather give them reassurance that you are remaining alert and careful.
We and our children are focused, quite acutely, on the hate-crime aspect of these tragedies. Chanukah is actually a good vehicle to discuss this with children, although in measured terms that will not excite additional fright. First help re-stabilize and re-regulate your family. Most people of all ages will be more receptive and will better appreciate a hashkafah focus once they are calm and feel that they are physically safe. Then, it is a good time to address some of the realities of our living in galus, how we have an identity to maintain, and in age-mindful terms which a child can utilize, focus on the importance of tefillah, of mindfulness of our avodah, of drawing on our bitachon at all times. Parents must also be prepared when a child is struggling with those lofty concepts at a time like this. As always, if you feel equipped to hear their struggle and to address them tenderly and appropriately, you are the best person to have that discussion. Getting angry at a child or a teen when they are experiencing conflict is never productive. If you need to turn to someone who is learned and who can address these questions wisely and with patience, give your loved one that gift of arranging time with a trusted rebbe, teacher, or relative.
There is always a range of reactions that we see in children as well as in adults. Sometimes, physical symptoms of distress surface. That might be fear of going to sleep, restlessness, sleeping too much, appetite changes, inattentiveness, or feeling weak or sick. You can expect some reaction, and, much of the time, it will be stress rather than actual physical illness. Usually, stress reactions pass within a few days, but respect that if the body expresses the fear and sadness, it is not a put-on but a real reaction which needs understanding, compassion, and gentle encouragement. Your child will likely respond well, for example, if you sit with them at bedtime, speak softly about happier things, tell them an upbeat story, and avoid focus on the tragedy as they prepare for sleep.
This is also a time for cohesiveness in the family. Whether meal time, casual time, or somehow creating time for parents and children to ground themselves by exercising the sense that they are safe in their home, that the family is a close-knit, caring unit, and that some sense of normal structure is in place, send that nonverbal behavioral message that you are secure and communicating. As soon as is feasible, restore for yourselves and family your regular routines, your productive schedules, and that sense that personal and family life has a structure.
May we be zochim to yeshuos, refuos, v’kol tuv b’karov.
Rabbi Dr. Dovid Fox is the director of Project Chai’s Crisis Intervention, Trauma and Bereavement Department.