When your child is born, you worry about everything your baby comes in contact with. You watch them as they sleep to make sure they are positioned right and you dive to get the binky that has just hit the pavement before it goes back in their mouth. When you entrust someone to watch your child, you fear the worst. You worry about daycare personnel, but also worry about family members who might feed your child ice cream for lunch. You wait for the day your child enters school because you think you will finally be able to stop worrying. Certainly it is safe at school.
Like many parents across the country, you watched in horror as the events in Newtown, Conn., were reported. Suddenly, nothing felt sacred. The unthinkable happened. Someone invaded the sanctity of a school and killed the most innocent of our citizens. Many parents outside of Newtown were traumatized by these events. Fear, sadness, anger, anxiety are normal reactions to very abnormal circumstances.
As a parent, you may be struggling to make sense of these events, but violence against children is senseless, so this endeavor is pointless. I encourage parents to express their emotions to each other. Lean on a spouse or other parents you are friends with. Talk about your fears and anxieties. To quote a wise friend of mine, “Tears can be healing,” so don’t be afraid to heal.
You may wonder how you can handle such a situation with your children while you are upset yourself. There are several key points to remember.
First, it is most important to be present both physically and emotionally for your children. Although this may seem obvious, often parents are glued to news coverage and miss their children’s symptoms of anxiety and concern. Parents may also be struggling with their own emotions and miss the subtle emotional signs from their children.
Second, don’t assume that your children have the same feelings about the events as you do. Children react very differently from adults and may have unexpected thoughts or feelings about events. Children often worry about their parents or their toys, as it is difficult for them to personalize such trauma. It is best to ask children how they are feeling and what they are thinking about the events. Encourage expression of emotion by asking children to draw a picture or write a poem. Validating feelings and reassuring children are most effective in calming fears and worries.
Many experts advise parents to limit media exposure with young children especially. I agree with this but I also believe that parents should limit their own exposure to the news and all the details of the events. I am particularly concerned with how traumatizing 9-1-1 tapes can be. There is some information that can be toxic to our psyche and I feel strongly that we should all protect ourselves against such “news.”
Lastly, the world may feel like an unsafe place, but make your world safe. Reassure your child that he or she is safe with you. Encourage your children to be strong and independent by pointing out their talents and strengths. Look them in the eye and tell them in detail what you love about them. Give examples and be specific such as, “Yesterday I saw you get frustrated with your homework, but you kept at it and I admire that in you,” or “You were kind to your sister when you let her go first and I’m proud of you.”
Children are amazingly resilient, yet can still get “stuck” at times. Traumatic events can bring up issues for children who may be sensitive to anxiety or depression. If your child shows symptoms that seem concerning, such as an inability to sleep for several nights, a change in appetite, sudden trouble concentrating, sad or anxious moods lasting more than a few days, isolating oneself from peers and family, or a change in activity level, he or she may be in need of further assistance coping. Advice from a school counselor or therapist is recommended in these circumstances. Also, if you notice your child identifying with the aggressor in this tragedy, you may want to seek advice from a professional.
None of us can undo the events in Newtown, but we can create new pathways of communication and networks of support in order to promote the safety and improve the future of our children.