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Tragedy and triumph for child and parent



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From bruises and scrapes to broken bones at play to diseases to wreck injuries to shock revelations, tragedies are part of our having children and being involved with them. To be a parent is to face risks.

Most of these tragedies are minor, forgotten by everyone a few hours or days later. But not ever forgotten are the weeks in a hospital with chemo or radiation for a childhood cancer, nor is surgery and careful monitoring of a child’s behavior after childhood surgery. You and your child can prepare ahead. Discuss your child's feelings, expectations, worries, and fears before surgery or other hospital stays. And think about your own. Unless it is an emergency many hospitals let parents and child see the hospital facilities and meet staff ahead of time to help the child feel more relaxed and comfortable.

Some parents claim that almost dictatorial control of their children when young will protect them from risk of tragedy. But many of these horrors cannot be prevented by being overly protective. Being overly protective sometimes increases the risk, for the child has not been involved with parents in give-and-take talking and preparation for how to face risks.

We parents, caregivers, partners can be very alert in searching out dangers in our homes and yards — matches, lighters, flammable materials, dangerous chemicals — to be certain younger children cannot get to them. To see how safe the rooms of your home are when inquisitive, exploring children are probing sit on the floor to get their angle. If a skate board is available, sit on it to roll around rooms probing as a child would. Perhaps your partner can list dangers, so you have a check list to eliminate dangers.

We can test to be sure smoke detectors are active.

Consider some risks and how we care givers can prepare for and prevent tragedies.

Children want to play actively. They want to play sandlot sports and they want to play in organized leagues. We have many pleasant memories of our son’s baseball and our daughter’s basketball and track competition. We knew there were risks and dangers that no coach or manager or player could prevent. Even with prior medical examinations clearing a child to play, some are injured, some seriously, and a few fatally.

When our children start riding bikes or scooters or driving autos or riding with others, they risk wreck injuries, and the possibility of fatal consequences.

How many parents recall with awful surprise and horror when a teen told of an unplanned pregnancy?

For some parents having their own child say he or she is gay or lesbian is a body blow. Some parents cannot accept this revelation, while others wisely say and feel, this is my child. Read more about this emotional problem. An organization called PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) helps many of these parents, and has support groups in many cities.

Our children may be caught by the criminal justice system. Your options are often limited, unless you can afford legal help with the proper expertise.

The worst of all tragedies is death. Seldom are we prepared for the horror, the decisions, the complexities, the finality. States have forms so we deputize a decison maker, and a form we can use if we wish to prevent being kept on life support when there is no hope.

At a different level are the personal tragedies of a boy friend or girl friend breaking up with our child, leaving our teen devastated.


List possible responses to this youngster. Include in your list how to avoid denial, which denies the heartbreak. Think of how many ways you can talk with this youngster about feelings and ways to respond. How can you best show empathy?

List possible tragedies that can strike a child or the family, and for each one list possible ways to talk with the child, and how to work with brothers and sisters. Once you have done this homework, you are far better prepared if this happens to you or to friends.

Here are a few areas for parents to think through.

Medical preparations
Some of these childhood tragedies can be avoided or prevented by medical planning. Inoculations of children is an early preventive step, but there are double risks. Parents have talked together and with me about the reported risks of certain shots, and how can they decide which risk is greater — to catch the disease or to risk the side effects of the shot. And if they catch the disease, what are the consequences? If your physician will not take the time to weigh with you both sides of this dilemma, perhaps in your community discussions are available in which panels of physicians, psychotherapists, and other health care professions discuss and debate these issues. Be sure that the information provided is the most recent. Some are sponsored by hospitals or by social agencies that work with families.

Another aspect of medical prevention is diet and exercise. Many of us have measured inches and feet on a door facing and noted the height of children at birth dates. Perhaps add the best weight beside those inch marks. The best exercise is by the family. When parents exercise regularly, and involve their children with them, disciplines are developing. When preparing meals or eating snacks conversation can probe into nutrition labels on foods and what they mean, and the consequences or effects that follow.

When our children ride wheeled toys or bicycles, we can work with them to prevent tragedies. We can talk with them about:

  • the differences between wrecks and accidents.
  • precautions such as helmets and demonstrate their values and effects.
  • defensive driving.

Do not preach, but use the skills of communication, I-messages, and give-and-take conversation. List specific ways to drive defensively, asking the child to suggest some specifics, then demonstrate or practice them.

In the year before your child starts to drive, chat with your child as you drive about these practices. With care when your child is in cars or on bikes, she will use seat belts and helmets, because they are your child's own inner disciplines. Our young son on getting into the car often said, "Uckle buck."

Prepare for a fire by thinking carefully about escaping from your home. Include a small fire as on the cook top, waking in the night, and others. Fire officials advocate parents plan multiple ways to leave a house on fire, especially a house with a second floor, and touching closed doors to see if they are hot, and if so alternate routes. Most important is deciding on one meeting place where each one goes, so you can be certain who may not have escaped. When children are young do fire escape drills. Another preparation is looking through the house for possible causes of fire, such as gas hoses and electric extensions. Some fire departments will check your home for dangers. Smoke alarms must be tested regularly, and batteries replaced at least annually.

One other important part of thinking about tragedies is how we parents respond, and what we say to our child and do with our child, and with brothers and sister. When tragedy strikes, we may ignore brothers and sisters in our concern for the child tragically struck.

Diseases and wrecks cause profound injuries that may effect the child for the rest of life. Sometimes death is the result — long, slow, excruciating; and sometimes so sudden. How can we now prepare ourselves and our child for this part of life? For life always involves risk and injury and death. A few steps you can take include:

  • Think about your own private faith and with your partner your common faith. This may be religious or profound humanistic values. How do you individually and with your partner cope with tragedy?
  • Talk with each child about tragedy when some situation presents the issue. A news report, seeing a child in a wheelchair, the death of a pet, or injury of a friend, or a biography, such as Anne Frank or Helen Keller, opens the way for conversation that has no denial of the reality, but how to find your way through the tragedy to triumph.
If you as parents have thought about tragedies and possible responses, and with your child you have explored these, then if tragedy strikes home, you can recall earlier conversation and have some basis for working on possible responses.

Let me close with a simile. We buy insurance not to prevent tragedies, but to provide the means to rebuild our cars, homes, and lives. In the same way we can prepare ourselves for possible tragedies, hoping they never happen, but better able to cope in healthy and positive ways.

Copyright © 2002 John F. Yeaman