Our children are being bombarded by horror stories that include shootings in schools, planes into buildings, bombs at marathons and stranger danger. Children (and adults) may wonder about safety in schools, shopping malls, movie theaters, public sporting events and even just walking down the local street.
"We can all relate to the famous line from 'The Wizard of Oz': 'We're not in Kansas anymore,' and we all recognize that the world is changing at an ever rapid and increasing pace," says Andrea Weiner, Ed.D. "This offers the children of today in many ways huge advantages, but along with that is also a highly complex and difficult world for them to navigate. As a child therapist, but more importantly as a mother myself, I truly understand the impact of these new challenges." Dr. "Andie" Weiner has concentrated her research on children's social and emotional skill development for more than 25 years.
Dr. Andie continues: "The message that children need to understand when they are initially dealing with traumatic events is that they are now safe. All children need to feel secure, and as parents we need to do whatever we can to give them this security. Once they can feel this, it is also important to allow your child to talk about their feelings whenever they need to talk about this. The loss of life, especially when something so unimaginable can happen, is unfathomable. We wring our hands; we shed tears; and our hearts can only empathetically go out to anyone whose families have to deal with these senseless tragedies."
Parents need to limit the exposure children get from the media to gruesome events; replaying the events over and over again may be confusing to younger children who interpret it as happening again. Turn off the television, concentrate on family togetherness and let your children take their cue from your own emotional response. Be aware of your child's coping mechanisms. While a certain amount of anxiety is normal, excessive changes in behavior may need a more proactive and professional ear. Don't attempt to block out the news altogether. Your child will hear someone talking; they will speculate on the playground, and even if the TV is off in your home, chances are they will see disturbing images on a newspaper front page in a store rack or hear the news reported on a radio playing in some store.
Don't ignore your child's questions. Answer them honestly and without unnecessary embellishment, and speak in age-appropriate terms. Ask what they've heard and what they are worried about before engaging in the conversation. Avoid filling in gory details they may not even know exist. Don't dwell on the story, and let it go once your child seems satisfied with the answers. Younger children may feel comfortable expressing themselves with dolls or drawings as they let the facts sink in.
Explain that events such as school shootings are (statistically) rare, and help your child understand the measures that are taken at his school to help ensure safety. Reassure your children that you, the teachers, the local police and community are doing the best they can to keep everyone safe. Resume and concentrate on normal everyday activities, and show your child that life goes on. Spending time as a family is reassuring for children of all ages as an affirmation that you are there and caring for and about each other.
After the Newtown, Conn., tragedy and the Boston Marathon bombings, social media sites were filled with memes quoting popular childhood icon, Fred Rodgers, "When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, 'Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.' It is comforting to know that there are good people out there who come to help when people need. Helping in some way is also a comfort for others who are forced to sit by and watch, encourage your child to send cards, help collection efforts and make signs of support. Feeling useful will help all of us to allay some of the stress, fear and frustration we may feel after a senseless tragedy.