Personal and Family Considerations
Chapter 7

I had no rational thoughts, they were all irrational.

-- Heather Cox

Hanging on to my sanity for a minute at a time often took all of my energy. I could not begin to look several days down the road.

-- Colleen Nick

Not knowing where your child is or how he or she is being treated is one of the hardest things you will have to face. One minute you will feel a surge of hope, the next, a depth of despair that will threaten your very sanity. Life will become an emotional roller coaster that won't really stop until you can hold your child in your arms again.

As you enter more deeply into the nightmare, know that you are not alone. Unfortunately, other families have had to travel this path also and have experienced the same emotional wringer. Families can and do survive -- and yours will, too, but it will take all the strength, hope, and willpower you can muster.

Regaining Your Emotional and Physical Strength

Your ability to be strong and to help in the search for your child requires that you attend to your own physical and emotional needs. Although it may be hard right now for you to maintain your daily routine, it is paramount that you do so. The driving force behind the search effort is you, and therefore you must, for your child's sake, be physically and mentally well in order to handle it. The fact is, the nightmare will continue until your child is found, so you need to take as many breaks from it as you can.

Force yourself to eat and sleep. Your body needs food and sleep in order to endure this ordeal. Although eating and sleeping may seem incredibly difficult, you must try. If eating regular meals feels like too much of a drain or if it brings back painful memories of your child, change your meal times and locations. If you cannot sleep at night because you are nervous, tense, or afraid of nightmares, find a place to relax and nap during the day. Just make sure you are doing everything you can to take care of yourself.

Find time for physical exercise. Any type of physical activity, even walking the dog, can help to ease the stress on your body and clear your head. Physical exercise also can help you relax at night so your body gets the sleep it needs.

Create space for yourself. Find a place of refuge -- away from the pressure of the search and the investigation -- where you can be alone with your thoughts and regroup. Even a few quiet minutes can significantly relieve stress. It may help to walk in the park, visit your church or synagogue, or talk to a neighbor. Try to take as much time as you need and can spare. Remember that you are the best judge of what will help you to handle the life crisis and that it is okay -- even necessary -- to take a break from the stress for dinner and a walk.

Find ways to release your emotions. Your emotions will be running wild and will seem out of control. In these circumstances fear, anger, and grief can take over your entire existence. Therefore, you need to find a way to release your emotions because if you cannot express them, you may find yourself taking it out on others. Talk with someone -- a friend, a relative, or a professional therapist -- who will just listen. Also, try to stay busy. You can cook, write letters that express your feelings without mailing them, or record your thoughts and feelings in a journal.

Keep a journal. Some parents find it extremely helpful to keep track of their thoughts and feelings in a journal. Journal entries, which can be written or tape recorded, need not be coherent or intelligent. Their purpose is merely to record your thoughts and feelings at any particular time and to help you to resolve them.

Put your anger and grief to work for you. Come up with ideas for the search. For example, you can make a list of all of your child's friends, neighbors, and acquaintances -- anyone who might hold a clue as to the whereabouts of your child. You can make a list of places your child frequented or even occasionally visited -- anywhere law enforcement could look for your child. Finally, you can think of ways to release your emotions in a productive manner.

Stay away from alcohol and harmful medications. Alcoholic beverages, harmful drugs, and even prescription medications can prevent you from being an effective member of the search team and can even induce depression. However, if you are having trouble sleeping at night or coping during the day, ask your physician for help. He or she may prescribe a medication that will help you sleep or alleviate your depression. Just be sure that you only take medications under the supervision of a physician, because some can be addictive.

Don't blame yourself. Looking back, you may feel that there was something you could have done to have prevented your child's disappearance. You can literally drive yourself crazy asking, What if . . . ? But the fact is, if you did not arrange for the disappearance, you should not hold yourself responsible for not knowing or doing something that may seem obvious in hindsight. And remember, at least one child has been abducted out of the safety of her own bedroom while her parents slept in the room next door.

Don't shoulder the blame of others. Recognize that some people may blame you for the disappearance because of their own fears for their children. They may imply that if you had watched your child more closely, he or she would not have disappeared. Blaming you may make them feel somewhat safer in the world because they hold you -- and your supposed mistake -- responsible for your child's abduction, rather than the abductor. Also, sometimes one spouse blames the other for the disappearance of the child. This is hardly ever fair and can critically harm the well-being of the entire family. Try to stay out of the blame game by being kind to yourself and to one another. Understand that sometimes anger and blame are irrational and misplaced. Keep the lines of communication open among family members. If necessary, seek professional counseling or other outside assistance to help you handle the situation.

Stay united in your fight to find your child. Don't allow the stress of the investigation to drive a wedge into your family life. When emotions run wild, be careful that you do not lash out at or cast blame on others. Instead, give each other lots of warm hugs to counteract the stress inherent in the situation. Remember that everyone deals with crises and grief differently, so don't judge others because they do not respond to the disappearance in the same way you do.

Allow the opinions of other people to be their business, not yours. Some people need to have an opinion as to how well you are handling the situation and whether you should be acting differently. Keep in mind that such judgments are merely the opinions of others and that at any given moment, you are doing the best you possibly can.

Seek peer support for yourself and your family. Some parents find talking with other parents of missing children to be extremely beneficial. Sometimes it is enough to know that you are not alone and that someone else in the world truly understands. Consider contacting one of the parent authors of this Guide (listed in the back of this book) or a member of the Parent Resource Support Network. Call the Missing and Exploited Children's Program at the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, U.S. Department of Justice (listed in the Additional Resources section of this Guide) to get in touch with any one of the parent authors or to contact the Parent Resource Support Network. You can also ask your law enforcement contact for a list of victim's advocates and local support groups. Nonprofit agencies or your State missing children's clearinghouse can also provide you with the names and phone numbers of parents who can help.

Seek professional counseling for yourself and your family. Professional counseling can be extremely helpful for parents and families to assist them in coping with their feelings of fear, depression, grief, isolation, anger, and despair. You may think that you and your family can or should get through the crisis alone, but you don't have to. Encourage family members to take care of themselves by seeking support and counseling. If you need assistance finding or paying for counseling, contact your local mental health agency or provider or ask another family member or friend to do this for you. If you are uncomfortable with professional counseling, consider another form of support -- from your clergy, a physician, a lay counselor, or a friend.

Seek peace and solace for yourself. Many parents find comfort in their faith and use it as a powerful incentive to survive this nightmare. The loneliness of grief diminishes somewhat for people who believe that they are not alone. Turning to -- or returning to -- religion can give parents the support and encouragement they need at this critical juncture in their lives.

Mentally Preparing for the Long Term

As heartless as it may seem, your life and the lives of your children must go on. Although moving on with your life may seem impossible, you must do it -- for the good of yourself and your family. You will, of course, find that there is no such thing as "normal" life as you once knew it. Everything has changed, and has changed forever. And whatever the outcome, you will be dealing with this nightmare in some way for the rest of your life.

Going back to work is not abandonment of your child. If you need to return to work, you may feel extremely guilty. Try to remember that your child must have a home to return to and that you are working to provide that home for your child. When you return to work, find a quiet place where you can go to be alone or to cry. Your grief is likely to come unannounced, and you will need a place where you can express it. If your job requires a lot of concentration, which you are not able to give, look for another position that does not place as many demands on you. The American Hospice Foundation publication Grief at Work, listed in the Recommended Readings section of this Guide, has additional advice.

Focus on your emotional well-being. To keep yourself on a more even keel, continue individual and family counseling, and try to stay busy. You can immerse yourself in activities with your other children or volunteer to help in school, church, or the community. Don't isolate yourself. Many parent survivors try to help other parents by working through missing children's organizations or by starting a group of their own. The books and articles listed in the Recommended Readings section of this Guide have proven to be particularly helpful.

It's okay to laugh. A laugh can be as cleansing as a good cry. Laughter not only helps to release tension and emotion, it helps to restore normalcy to life.

Never stop looking. You will probably want to dedicate part of each day to your missing child. Use these hours to keep the search going and to keep the hope alive. You can set aside time to make phone calls, write letters, contact law enforcement, or do whatever you think will help in the search for your missing child.

Helping Your Children To Regain Their Physical and Emotional Strength

Your other children need your physical and emotional support now more than ever, but you may not be able to satisfy their needs. You may have barely enough energy to keep yourself going. You may feel that you are abandoning your lost child if you are not doing something every moment to find him or her. These are normal feelings. Consider getting additional support for your other children during this time of crisis. Here are some ideas.

Find a safety zone for your children. Find a safe place away from your home where your other children can be shielded from both the search effort and the media. This is especially important for young children, who still need to play and be themselves. Trusted friends and relatives can provide a reasonably normal, nurturing life for your children in a relatively stress-free environment, so this is a good time to let members of the extended family and friends assume a large part of the responsibility for their care. Just remember to maintain contact with your children -- both over the phone and with regular visits -- and to reassure them frequently how much you love them.

Consider letting your other children participate in the search. If it seems appropriate, you can allow your older children to actively participate in the search effort. However, it is important to consider their age, desire, and level of maturity and to respect their right to say no. If your children are young, you will need to decide how much information you want revealed and whether it is appropriate for them to participate in the search effort. In some cases, younger children have distributed balloons and fliers. If you decide to let your children participate, keep a gauge on how well they are handling the situation and be prepared to make changes, if necessary. Remember that there are both emotional and security issues to consider when your children participate in the search effort. Ask your law enforcement contact for advice.

Think twice about letting the media interview siblings. Interviews with the media can be extremely traumatic to the brothers and sisters of a missing child. Children are seldom prepared for the extremely personal or probing questions asked by insensitive or pushy media personnel. Remember that the media can and will be persistent, particularly given the sudden ascension of your family to "celebrity" status. Make sure that you supervise interviews and continue to set boundaries that are in your children's best interests.

Bring the needs of your other children into balance with those of your missing child. Focus on the needs of the children who are still at home. Remember that they, too, are trying to cope with their loss. Talk with your children about their feelings of fear, anger, hurt, and loss. Make them feel as important to you as your missing child. Encourage them to return to the interests and activities they enjoyed before the disappearance -- by playing with friends, participating in sports, or playing music.

Establish different routines to help your family cope. Family meetings can be an effective way to deal with the changes wrought by the disappearance. They offer family members a safe, nonjudgmental environment in which to voice feelings of fear, anger, and frustration. They also give family members an opportunity to keep one another informed about the ongoing investigation and involved in family decisionmaking.

Celebrate birthdays, holidays, and other special events. Young children will want to celebrate birthdays and holidays even when a brother or sister is missing. Plan ahead so you are not caught offguard by the intense emotional roller coaster that can accompany such events. You can, for example, try changing family holiday traditions and beginning new ones. Instead of throwing a big birthday party, you can eat cake and ice cream for breakfast and then open presents. If you have older children, instead of the traditional Christmas or Hanukkah celebration, you can go on a trip. Remember that your children need to have fun and that they want you to celebrate, even if your heart is not ready for it. Recognize, however, that you have personal limitations as to what you will be able to handle and that those limitations need to be respected. The secret is to plan ahead.

Allow all members of the family to talk about your missing child, about their emotional reactions to the situation, and about their loss. Don't let the absence of your child and your deep sense of loss become a taboo subject. Instead, let your children know that they can freely express their thoughts and feelings to you and that they will be met with love and acceptance. Let your children know that it is okay for everyone in the family -- including mom and dad -- to cry and that you can help each other by holding hands, giving each other a big hug or kiss, or getting each other a glass of water. Remember that even if you do not communicate with your children about your missing child, other children in the neighborhood will.

Don't be surprised if your other children's behavior drastically changes. Everyone in the family has suffered a tremendous shock. In these circumstances, bedwetting, stomach aches, depression, anger, sullenness, quietness, and truancy are common reactions. But by the same token, don't be alarmed if your child's behavior changes very little or not at all. Children, just as adults, react differently to the disappearance of a child.

Help your other children return to some type of normalcy by returning to school. Your children need the normalcy that the daily routine of school provides. But before your children go back to school, talk with them about what they want others to know. Make sure they understand that most people in your community already know what has happened. Listen to your child's thoughts and feelings about returning to school. Then, talk to your child's teachers and counselors to help them prepare for the return of your child.

Ask the school to bring counselors into the classroom both after the disappearance and when your child returns to school. Teachers and classmates of a missing child will also experience fear and grief. When your other children return to school, they and their friends -- and the friends of your missing child -- are bound to feel scared. Ask your law enforcement contact if an officer can go to the school to teach the children both how to recognize dangerous situations and how to get away. Ask teachers and counselors for their help in giving all of the children the support they need to deal with this crisis. The American Hospice Foundation publication Grief at School, listed in the Recommended Readings section of this Guide, has additional advice.

Ask other children who have faced similar difficulties to provide one-on-one support to your children. A number of sources can put you in touch with other families that have experienced the trauma of a missing child. Try calling your local law enforcement agency, your State missing children's clearinghouse, NCMEC, or other missing children's organizations. Your children may be more comfortable talking with a peer who has gone through a similar ordeal.

Seek professional counseling for your children. Your children are suffering just as intensely as you are and may need help dealing with feelings of fear, anger, and grief. Don't feel guilty that you cannot be their total support at this point in your life. Instead, look to others to help your children cope with the powerful emotions that follow the disappearance of a brother or sister.

Helping Extended Family Members To Regain Their Physical and Emotional Strength

The disappearance of a child affects many people -- grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins. They, too, will experience deep emotional scars from the sudden loss. All of you will need the love and support of one another. Extended family members can do a number of things -- contribute to the search effort, take care of other children, or stay in close phone contact -- to help them work through the pain and grief of losing a relative.

If possible, include extended family members in the search effort. Extended family members can serve a variety of functions -- as spokesperson for the family, coordinator of media events, coordinator of volunteers, or coordinator of searchers. They can also develop and disseminate posters and fliers, contact missing children's organizations to request assistance, and gather information to give to law enforcement to help in the search and recovery effort.

Put a daily report on your answering machine to keep family members informed of progress in the search. Law enforcement should keep you informed about the investigation, but in many cases extended family members are left out of such discussions. They may, as a result, feel left out and unsure of what to do. Putting simple messages on your answering machine will keep distant family members informed. It also will save you time from having to make or receive phone calls and in the process will help to free up your telephone line in the event that your child or someone with a tip is trying to get through.

Don't try to provide emotional support to everyone in your family. It is not your job to be an emotional "rock" for the extended family. Instead, encourage family members to seek support and comfort from friends and other family members, from their church or synagogue, or from local mental health agencies, professional counselors, or other community resources. Let members of your family know that you are depending on them to help you through this ordeal.

Previous Contents Next

OJJDP Report: When Your Child Is Missing: A Family Survival Guide, May 1998