Fernway School: Helping children with the unexpected

The fire that broke out at Fernway Elementary School on July 10 surprised Shaker Heights residents, young and old.  Anyone who has a history and connection with the school feels a sense of sadness and loss. People are sharing their thoughts, memories, and feelings about their experiences and are trying to process the unexpected.

Children often are challenged by surprising events, and need parents and sometimes professionals who can help make sense of what seems senseless. Loss of any kind, even a beloved school building, is disruptive, confusing and makes everyone feel helpless and vulnerable – raising the yet-unanswerable question, “Could someone have prevented this from happening?”

Feelings of fear and uncertainty often result from an unexpected event. “How could such a thing happen in my neighborhood?” “Why now, today?’ “Why my school?” “What if I or my friend or favorite teacher was in the building when it happened?”

Children can be comforted and reassured by adults doing their best to answer questions.  Even when there might not be specific answers, children feel understood when they have the opportunity to discuss their questions and worries. However, when an adult or older child is dismissive, it is often because they feel the same vulnerability and worry as the child. Saying to a child, “Don’t worry, that could never happen” or “That does not make sense” makes a child, as well as adult, feel misunderstood.

Reassurance and information helps children feel safe and grounded. Allowing verbalization of irrational and scary thoughts helps everyone feel safe. For adult and child alike, feeling empathic toward one another’s discomfort, and speaking kind and loving words, leads to a feeling of safety and eventually to mastery of a difficult event.

Image courtesy of Shaker Heights Schools

About Judith Pitlick, MA, LPCC

Judith L. Pitlick, MA, LPCC is a child, adolescent, and adult psychotherapist and psychoanalyst in private practice in Shaker Heights, Ohio. She works with individuals, couples, parents and families.
As a licensed teacher in regular and special education, she previously taught at a therapeutic school as well as at area colleges and universities.
She is on the faculty at The Hanna Perkins Center for Child Development, where her work includes consultation with directors, teachers and parents at area schools and child care centers.
Pitlick is on the Faculty of the Cleveland Psychoanalytical Center and is a clinical Instructor in the Case Western Reserve Medical School Department of Psychiatry.