Shootings at schools, religious institutions, movie theatres, on the streets of New York, and most recently at a Pathmark in New Jersey have some children worried about their safety. Parents wonder how to address these events with their kids. When exposed to violence even on television children can have all kinds of emotional responses. Here are some suggestions for talking to your children about such horrific events and helping them feel safe.
Encourage children to explain what they understand and how they feel about a violent event. Avoiding the topic will force kids to ruminate and draw their own – possibly unrealistic – conclusions. Validate their feelings whether you understand them or not. While many children respond with fear and worry, some have a neutral or even positive reaction. This is common. Listen and try to empathize without judging. Younger children tend to communicate their feelings through play and drawings. If a drawing contains violent images, try not to be alarmed, and discuss this with your child.
Limit media exposure. Some studies have shown that each time a child sees coverage of a violent event he believes it is reoccurring. Adolescents and teens who have a better grasp of time and who may have an interest in news (and possibly even homework assignments related to current events) should watch with their parents to promote conversation.
Discuss safety precautions in schools and in the community. Children should know who to turn to when they feel threatened or sense danger, and should know exactly what to do in cases of emergency. Encourage children to report suspicious activities and behaviors. This includes instances of bullying. Parents should communicate with schools and teachers to make sure that everyone is on the same page when it comes to emergency procedures. It is also important to be aware of how much information is being communicated in classes. Even if you can shield your children at home, they will overhear their peers and teachers discussing current events. They might even be taught about them in class.
Many children experience nightmares, increased anxiety, or anger after violent events. This is normal for a short period of time, but most children will return to their previous level of functioning rather quickly. Parents need to be alert to signs that their child is having an atypical reaction. According to the American Psychological Association, indicators could be a change in school performance, changes in relationships with peers or teachers, excessive worry, school refusal, sleeplessness, nightmares, head and stomachaches, or a loss of interest in activities that they once found pleasurable. If you suspect a problem, try asking your child what is worrying him. Many children are reluctant to bring it up or have difficulty communicating their feelings. If a problem persists, seek help from a professional who understands post traumatic stress and can help your child cope with these unfortunate events.
Dr. Jaime Black is a licensed psychologist practicing in Westchester and New York City. In addition to providing general mental health services, Jaime works with individuals of all ages on the autism spectrum, doing psychotherapy, conducting evaluations, and facilitating social skills groups. Visit www.spectrumservicesnyc.com, e-mail JaimeBlackPsyD@gmail.com or call (914)712-8208.