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Real ‘bombs bursting in air’ provide perspective

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As we think about Independence Day and "The Star Spangled Banner" this week, I'm afraid "the bombs bursting in air" are still too painful for me. Despite a profound sense of gratitude for my freedom, I am unable to watch the fireworks without tears of thanksgiving mingled with tears of a conditioned fear that is only now receding into a memory.

In 1982, I moved to war-torn Beirut with my husband, a faculty member at the American University, and my 2-year-old son, David. By the time my daughter Nadia arrived in 1984, we had shared for over a year the fears and anxieties of the good Lebanese people as they watched their homeland torn apart. As U.S. citizens, we were sensitive to the bombing of the American Embassy on the next block, the explosion of the Marine headquarters with the loss of 241 servicemen and the assassination of AUB's president, Malcolm Kerr, yards from our apartment.

I never grew accustomed to the bullets that exploded outside my kitchen window as I stood inside washing dishes, or the sound of buildings or school buses bombed in the distance. Friends disappeared — killed, kidnapped or simply moving, tired of fearing for their children's lives.

Feb. 6, 1984, is memorable in historical accounts as the day the Lebanese Army collapsed and militias fought for control of the capital city. It is memorable in our family's history as the day Nadia was born. I remember the ride through gunfire to a hospital filled to capacity with war casualties, of giving birth in a waiting area and lying on a gurney in the recovery room a few feet from the window as huge shells smashed into surrounding buildings every two minutes.

More poignantly, I remember learning that a dear friend held my son all that night as he trembled in his sleep every time a blast shook the city. And I remember three days later being evacuated by military helicopter from the beach outside our apartment to a battleship in the Mediterranean.

Back in the United States, David's artwork began to all look the same. Whether it was a Pinocchio coloring book or a free-hand mural, black was the dominant color — often the only color — scribbled across the page with an occasional splash of orange for "fire." And this from a 4-year-old who had really needed the variety offered by the 96-count package of Crayons only a few months before.

While other boys pushed each other down slides, David, alone in a corner of the playground, would toss handfuls of sand and grass into the air and then dart under the falling debris, all the while emitting sounds of artillery fire punctuated by an occasional "run for your life!" And as I watched mothers subtly shepherd their preschoolers away from my son, I found myself thinking not too charitably, "Bet the toughest thing in your kid's life is finding out his sister's already beat him to the prize in the bottom of the Cracker Jacks."

And then I remembered the children left back in Beirut who never awakened from their nightmares because daylight consistently held just as much terror. And then I remembered all the preschoolers in the United States who lived in areas where gunfire was just another noise in the night. And then I remembered the kids whose mothers never came home from the hospital after their last battle with cancer. And those who live in their own silent world of abuse from "loved ones." And those who hear daily taunts from classmates over stuttered words.

I wonder how parents of these children who have faced great tragedy feel when they walk past aisles of books titled, "Give Your Child. . . ," or "A Healthier, Happier Baby." If I worry over the lasting effects of my son's relatively brief exposure to war, what is happening in the hearts of other parents? Do they fear their children are hopelessly damaged? Doomed to a lifetime of running from self-imposed handfuls of "dirt"?

Fortunately, other kinds of books are beginning to emerge on library shelves. One, for example, takes its title from the words of Robert Louis Stevenson, "Life is not so much a matter of holding good cards, but sometimes of playing a poor hand well." In his introduction, Mark Katz, Ph.D., summarizes the professional literature: "Many adults who currently enjoy happy and productive lives grew up under very difficult and emotionally stressful conditions that they couldn't change, no matter how hard they tried."

This notion of "resilience" is a concept that has been researched systematically for only the past decade, and some of the research is stunning. During such research, 51 "successful" individuals were interviewed, identified not only because of their striking achievements but also because of their wholeness as human beings. Fifty of the 51 participants had experienced unusual challenges in their early years, ranging from the death of both parents to debilitating physical disease.

These people were not doomed by adversity; they lifted themselves above it.

What are some of the sources of strength and protection that allow many individuals to endure and overcome overwhelmingly stressful conditions of childhood?

Communicating Painful Life Experiences: Children learn to view their struggles in a new light when others listen and let them express their pain in words, pictures and stories. They eventually stop blaming themselves for adversity beyond their control. Instead, they develop problem-solving skills for those aspects of life within their control and begin to verbalize lessons they've learned from painful life events. Books like "Kids with Courage" by Barbara Lewis can be a first step in helping children learn about others who have struggled with similar hardships in their earlier years.

Finding Buffers: Many who have faced major adversity speak of a special person who was there to help in times of greatest need. We may never even know when we are serving as that "buffer" against otherwise unendurable pain in a child's world. We may be the coach, teacher, scout leader, church worker or neighbor to such a child or adolescent. To paraphrase, "I can't help the world, but I can help someone's world."

Developing a Sense of Mastery: We can help young people within the sphere of our influence develop talents and skills. Through the recognition and praise that naturally follow, children learn the stuff they are made of and they build an identity around this positive scaffolding.

Epilogue: After much retelling of the "bombings," David eventually needed all 96 crayons again for his pictures. Over his elementary years he developed friends who shared his love of Legos, as well as adult leaders who accepted his timidity in the face of loud sounds and certain kinds of experiences. And with the development of Nintendo skills as well as academic success in the sciences, David had a pretty darn healthy self-image. Offered a "penny for his thoughts" one day, he responded, "I was just thinking how pleased everyone would be if they had a little boy just like me."

Not bad for a child I feared might grow up feeling damaged.

Elizabeth Norton is a research associate with BYU Family Studies Center.