To paraphrase an old saying: The only constant in life is change.
"Life changes every day for every person in some way," said Dr. Linda Ladd, Texas Cooperative Extension family development specialist. "We expect the seasons to change, children to grow taller, birthdays to keep piling on, strawberries in June and the crisp smell of fall in October ... we expect to grow older ... to watch children marry, to retire from our jobs and play with our grandchildren.
"We even recognize that sickness and death are expected events in our lives."
But when the change is massive and immediate, what then? What is a normal reaction to an enormously abnormal event--such as hijacked airplanes destroying the 110-story World Trade Center and damaging large chunks of the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.?
"We do not expect sudden violence in our town or neighborhood, and even less in our homes," Ladd said. "When the world changes in a major way through war or economic recession or a death of a President, we manage our reaction to the changes through our coping strategies."
But adults must not only take care of their own reaction to sudden--and sometimes violent--changes in life, they must also help the younger generation do the same.
"As adults, we model ways of handling change that will be absorbed by the children and youth around us," Ladd said. "When we shape or adapt our own problem-solving behaviors and coping strategies, we (show) others how being flexible and adaptive is a positive approach to getting through a life-changing event."
These coping strategies vary with each individual, she said, and are based, for the most part, on age and experiences each person has had throughout life.
Ladd suggested the following questions might help each individual discover the skills he or she has available to help with the current crisis:
--What is your usual emotional reaction to big change in your life? Does it overwhelm you; do you tend to withdraw from others or become a social butterfly? Do you manage to continue with your daily routine or are you so overwhelmed you can barely get out of bed? Do you lose sleep or sleep too much? "Uncertain situations, such as terrorist threats, can cause one person to pull in emotionally and stay at home more, while another person will ... go visit an old friend," Ladd said.
--What personal values and beliefs will sustain you though a crisis? Does a huge change shake your faith or make it stronger? Does it make you search for answers? "Life-changing events cause each of us to review our priorities and our values, and adapt or change those that do not help us through the event," she said. "Huge changes in our world can cause temporary changes in how we express our values that end when the event or the threat from the event ends."
--What coping strategies do you have to help you manage unexpected life changes? Do you fall back into an old pattern or do you try new coping methods? "As we review a situation, we realize that one way we reacted worked better than another, and we change our strategies for coping with change," Ladd said. Outside help--reading books, talking with friends and/or consulting a professional--might help, she added.
--What new skills can help in the future? Are you willing to learn from your own past experiences? "We learn from others new ways to act and ways not to act," Ladd said. "When we watch others be successful in solving or coping with the problem, we model their behavior, and over time adapt it to our unique needs and style."
Change comes into every life, at every age, but for children, massive change can be especially difficult because their experiences, like their life spans, are still limited.
Children can be affected differently than adults, and it"s up to the adults to help the children through the rough times, Ladd said. "Adults who consider the age and developmental level of the children are better prepared to support children emotionally, teach effective problem-solving skills, and model successful coping strategies."
The child's age and stage of development is pivotal for adults helping children cope with huge life changes, she said. "Very young children who see a scene repeated on TV several times are less likely to understand that they are seeing the same event. ... a school-aged child will remember the event and consider how he or she can solve the problem with the resources on hand, (such as a lemonade stand or piggy bank)."