By Stacey Meadows, LCSW-C
In a modern world, we parents cannot help but constantly worry about the safety of our children. We are bombarded with stories and images of terrorism and violence in our communities and across the globe. As the manager of child therapy for Jewish Community Services, I hear parents ask time and time again, “How do I protect my children in this 21st century world?”
A few weeks ago, JCS hosted a Parenting program, “It’s a Mad, Mad World,” in which I presented strategies for helping parents deal with this topic. Some of my presentation was information I had shared before, most recently in 2014 following a deadly shooting at a local shopping mall. The advice I shared then is similar to today, because our world isn’t getting any easier for us, or our children, to understand.
Meeting with parents in person allowed for the opportunity to dialogue about how this issue presents in our homes – from kids catching clips of the news between their regularly scheduled programming, to children witnessing protesters downtown, to students experiencing lockdowns or their schools closing early due to the Baltimore riots.
I’d like to share some of the topics and questions that came up during that Parenting Series discussion.
How has technology impacted our children’s exposure to these issues, and how does that access impact the way that we need to talk to our children about these issues?
Technology has completely changed the way that we and our children learn about, and interact with, the world around us. For better or for worse, television and news stations tend to become hyper focused on tragedies, especially those that occur locally.
Young children are not in a position to understand what is being presented to them through media. Media coverage often replays footage of distressing images alongside repeated accountings of the events. Children watching these images can become confused and increasingly upset, believing that the event is occurring over and over again.
Although I strongly recommend limiting media coverage for younger children, you and your teen may benefit from this advice as well. Research has shown that this kind of media coverage can induce significant, and sometime clinical, trauma response in both adults and children.
Additionally, by allowing children to witness media coverage, you are no longer in control of what information they obtain and how they get it. In the age of cell phones and internet, news travels fast! The older and more technologically savvy your child is, the more information they are likely to have before they even have a chance to speak with you. As such, it may be a good idea to ask your child what they know before you tell them what you think they should know.
How do I talk to my children about these issues when they are varying ages?
In my original blog, I discussed ways to talk to your children about such difficult events. This is a great question that does tend to come up a lot as we talk about issues that impact a family as a whole.
When talking with your children in a group, it’s important to speak using language on the youngest developmental level in the audience. For example, if you have three children, ages 5, 7, and 11, make sure to talk in such a way that the 5 year old understands. You can always have additional conversations at a higher level with your older ones at a later time.
In speaking with your children individually, it’s important to consider their ages and developmental levels. Younger children, such as preschoolers, may be blissfully unaware of what has occurred in the world around them, even after they have been told.
The younger the child, the less information they need from you. Pre-schoolers and elementary schoolers need basic facts presented in broad strokes. Though they may ask for more detailed information, generally these children are really asking, “Am I safe?” and “Are you safe?”
As children grow older they are better able to understand the context of these major events, and often require more detailed information in order to feel that they can figure out what happened. Middle Schoolers straddle the line between their younger and older counterparts – they often seek more information, though still share the need to feel safe and protected. This age group more than any other may need you to assess how much information is too much.
By the time our children reach high school, they have critical thinking skills that allow them to process information in a much more mature way. These children are likely to seek out information if we can’t provide it, so we may find conversations to be more valuable when we ask them, “What do you think about….” rather than telling them where we stand.
Remember that some responses transcend age and language. Spending extra time together is a huge support to your children whether you actually say a little or a lot.
For more detailed information about how to talk to children of a specific age group, see this blog by my colleague, Miriam Insel.
How can I help my child to feel more safe?
Have a plan. You don’t have to wait for a safety issue to have a safety plan. Make sure that your child’s school, and extracurricular programming identifies safety protocol with you and your child. While these protocols and drills may sometimes feel scary, they help our children to feel confident and empowered in event of an emergency.
Make sure that your child knows how to reach you. Do they know your contact information, or that of emergency services? Do they know how to access and use a phone? If you can’t call or pick them up, who will? How will they know that person is a safe person to go with?
Lead by example and teach them to be mindful of their surroundings. Report or call emergency assistance when identifying unattended packages.
Help them to trust their instincts, and trust that you are their ally. If a situation feels unsafe to them, help them to come to a more comfortable solution. Let them know that you are there to support them and to help them figure out tough situations, no matter what.
Focus on the helpers. Should your child see increased police presence, make sure they know that these police are there to help keep them safe, not to indicate that they are unsafe. If your child accesses media footage, or witnesses a tragedy, help them identify the helpers – police and citizens, who are helping, rather than those that are hurt or hurting.
Should you feel that you or your child are experiencing trauma, or are in need of additional clinical support or intervention, please contact JCS Intake at 410-466-9200, or another mental health practitioner.
By Stacey Meadows, LCSW-C, JCS Therapy Services
Because parenting doesn’t come with an instruction manual, JCS offers a variety of programs, services, education and support for parents and families with children of all ages. Click here or call 410-466-9200 to learn more.