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Dr. Joyce Brothers: Coping with tragedy

Dr. Joyce Brothers is considered the dean of American psychologists. A regular columnist for Good Housekeeping Magazine, Dr. Brothers' columns appear in more than 175 newspapers reaching 22 million readers worldwide. She also contributes to Parade and Reader's Digest, and is the author of ten books including "How To Get Whatever You Want out of Life" and "Positive Plus: The Practical Plan for Liking Yourself Better."

CNN: Thank you for joining us today, Dr. Joyce Brothers, and welcome.

BROTHERS: Hello and I hope you'll ask me a question you'd like to have an answer to, and I'll try to help.

CNN: The shootings in Goshen, Indiana... the war in Afghanistan... the events of September 11. In your 40 years as a psychologist, have you ever seen America under such stress?

BROTHERS: No, I was really too young to pay much attention to World War II, because I was busy with schooling and other things, so I'm really not able to comment very knowingly about the previous wars. But I watched the Trade Center buildings go down from my balcony, and it was a terrifying moment. I couldn't get my mind around it at all.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Dr. Brothers, how do you get one to open up and discuss the rage that they have over the September 11 attacks? My generation has never seen anything like this and people are so enraged but they don't know how to start dealing with it.

BROTHERS: Tell them the truth, and that is that fear and anger are antithetical. You can't be afraid and angry at the same time. So when you are afraid, the best thing you can do is get angry, and that gives them permission to open up and express the angry feelings that we all have about losing a special freedom, the freedom from fear.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: How can I help a friend that has just lost her 15-year-old son. He was killed on his bike outside of his own home?

BROTHERS: There is nothing that you can say that changes the situation. The important thing is that you say whatever is in your heart. So many people, because they don't know what to say, just stay away. It is that isolation that is additional terror and misery to the person who has lost a loved one. One difficult thing to say, and perhaps you would prefer not to say it, and shouldn't say it, is "I know how you feel," because no one can really put themselves in the shoes of a mother who has lost a child. But other than that, anything you say is welcome.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Dr. Brothers, the events of September 11 have consumed the minds of many of us adults. What are you finding in how children are dealing with the events and what suggestions do you have for parents?

BROTHERS: It's important that parents share with their children their feelings about the events of September 11. We can say truthfully that it has changed our lives, and made us fearful and worried, but that we know that the leaders of our country will prevail and make us secure again. You can't really turn off the television and not watch the news, but if the child is in the room when you are watching the news, open up the discussion, and ask how the child feels about what he or she has seen on the television, and discuss it. When you are open to questions and discussion, it is comforting for the child. But there is a fine line between watching the news, and watching too much of the news. Go on with your life, and your child will be able to do that as well. If your child seems more disturbed than usual, have them draw the dream they had last night. You won't be able to make head or tail of the drawing, but asking them what they're painting or drawing opens up a discussion of what specifically they're afraid of.

CNN: Do the coping skills remain the same at all levels of stress, or are mental health professionals facing new challenges in helping to prevent outbreaks of aggression?

BROTHERS: We have not seen as many post-traumatic stress disorders as we do today, and mental health professionals are dealing with their own pain, as well and to some extent, their own guilt, because all of us feel guilty if we have not lost someone important to us. At the same time that we feel gratitude for what we still possess.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Have the attacks affected the way you live your life at all? If so, how?

BROTHERS: I have been invited on almost every television program dealing with the news imaginable, and it has made my life more hectic, but also very gratifying to be able to help and/or inform others. One of the television networks dubbed me "America's Counselor."

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Do you think the constant unspecific "alerts" coming out of the White House are helping or hurting our ability to cope with the situation and return to some semblance of normalcy?

BROTHERS: I think the alerts which say that we have something to worry about, but we don't know what, are very unnerving to people. But at the same time, our leaders don't want to be caught with something terrible happening, and no alerts. But it adds to our worries, and makes it tough to go back to our normal lives, without looking over our shoulder every time we cross a bridge or get on an airplane. It's a no-win situation for our leaders.

CNN: Do you have any closing comments to share with us?

BROTHERS: During this holiday season, when we're all very stressed, there are things we can do to reduce our distress. We can cherish our traditions and perhaps make new ones when our family constellation changes. But most of all, I think it reduces our stress to have our family close, and to feel gratitude.

CNN: Thank you for joining us today.

BROTHERS: I wish everyone who has participated today that they have a most happy holiday, and the peace and joy of the season. Peace, above all. Hope will come to us shortly. Thank you.

Dr. Joyce Brothers joined the chat room via telephone from New York and provided a typist. The above is an edited transcript of the interview on Monday, December 10, 2001 at 1 p.m. EST.


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