By Gail Lipsitz, Coordinator, Public Relations
July 20, 2012. Suddenly, shots shatter the air in a crowded movie theatre in Aurora, Colorado. Within minutes, 12 people are dead, including six-year-old Veronica Moser Sullivan, and many others are wounded. The motives of the killer, James E. Holmes, are still unknown, but many see him as a troubled person who went berserk.
This horrible story has dominated the daily news. It’s a nightmare you hope would never happen. If you’re the parent of a young child, all your protective instincts are on high alert. But when everyone is talking about the shootings, you can’t shield children from hearing about it. How in the world do you explain such random violence to children, and keep their natural fears from overwhelming them?
I posed these questions to Loren Walsh, MA, therapist at Jewish Community Services, who shared excellent advice for parents. Loren also recommended some good websites, including Virginia Tech’s. She cited their article, “How to Talk to Your Children about Violence,” in several of the points that follow.
Violent incidents like the Colorado shooting that happen in places we normally perceive as safe (movie theatres, schools, community centers, stores) are very frightening to children. You first need to find out exactly what fears your children have. This means listening carefully, without jumping in to interpret or reassure them. Let them express what they are scared of in their own words. After a violent event, children most often worry that it could happen again anywhere, not only in the kind of place where it just happened. They also want to know: “Will it happen to us?” particularly in a case like this, where a young girl was killed.
Every child reacts differently to fear or trauma, so talk to each of your children to learn what’s on their minds. Don’t dismiss or minimize their fears. Children also observe our reactions, and they’ll be more upset if we “lose our cool” or convey our own anxiety when discussing a violent event with them, or if they overhear us talking about it on the phone. How we portray the event affects how our kids react.
Without dwelling on the details with a young child, it’s fine to acknowledge that the Colorado shooting is frightening, and that we are sad for the victims, their families and the community. Tell your child that, yes, this did happen, and there are bad people in the world, but such occurrences are rare. Explain that many people are working to keep us safe, including parents, teachers, police, and neighbors. Be available to your child more than usual during the days after the incident to provide comfort and reassurance.
Here are some tips:
- Take control of the information your child is getting and from what sources. All kinds of partial, inaccurate, and skewed information swirls around after a violent incident. Kids pick it up at camp and school, on the playground, in playmates’ homes, as well as in the media. Ask your child, “What have you heard? Do you have questions?”
- Don’t make the media so accessible to young children. You can turn off the TV or radio, and tell your child the news yourself, in words appropriate for his/her ability to understand and absorb it. Think about how you would want bad news broken to you: with empathy and sensitivity. If you choose to allow your child to watch or listen, don’t leave him alone. Watch together, explain what is happening and talk about it.
- If your child is quiet, look for opportunities to bring up what has happened. Just because a child isn’t talking or asking doesn’t mean the child is unaware and unaffected. A good conversation starter is: “Have you heard about…?” or bring it up in the car, when you are together in an enclosed space.
- Look for signs of stress, especially changes in usual behavior. Watch for indications that your child may be fearful or anxious, such as trouble sleeping, bad dreams, changes in appetite, not wanting to be alone in the dark, difficulty concentrating, etc.
- Seek professional help if these problems persist and interfere with your child’s normal functioning, by consulting a physician, psychologist or social worker.
In a scary world where we can’t control everything that happens, one thing we parents can do is to make home a safe haven for our children. Communication is the best form of reassurance. And don’t forget to give lots of hugs, no matter how old your child is.
By Gail Lipsitz, Coordinator, Public Relations, Jewish Community Services, Baltimore, MD
- “How to Talk to Your Children About Violence,” (focuses on schools, but pertains to other situations as well)
- “Helping Children Recover from Disasters,” by Marilou Rochford, MA, CFLE, Rutgers Cooperative Research and Extension Fact Sheet (2005)
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