High-profile acts of violence can confuse and frighten children who may feel in danger or worry that their friends or loved-ones are at risk. They will look to adults for information and guidance. Parents can help children feel safe by establishing a sense of normalcy and security and talking with them about their fears.
Here are tips from the National Association of School Psychologists.
1. Reassure children that they are safe. Emphasize that the family is safe. Validate their feelings. Explain that all feelings are OK when a tragedy occurs. Let children talk about their feelings, help put them into perspective, and assist them in expressing feelings appropriately.
2. Make time to talk. Use ‘kid friendly’ resources. Let their questions be your guide as to how much information to provide. Be patient; children and youth do not always talk about their feelings readily. Watch for clues that they may want to talk, such as hovering around while you do the dishes or yard work. Some children prefer writing, playing music, or doing an art project as an outlet. Young children may need concrete activities (such as drawing, looking at picture books, or imaginative play) to help identify and express their feelings.
3. Keep your explanations developmentally appropriate.
• Early elementary school children need brief, simple information that should be balanced with reassurances that their school and homes are safe and that adults are there to protect them. Give simple safety examples like reminding children about exterior doors being locked, child monitoring efforts, and emergency drills.
• Upper elementary and early middle school children will be more vocal in asking questions about whether they are safe and what is being done to keep everyone safe. They may need assistance separating reality from fantasy. Discuss efforts of school and community leaders to provide safe communities.
• Upper middle school and high school students will have strong and varying opinions about the causes of violence. They will share concrete suggestions about how to make things safer and how to prevent tragedies in society. Emphasize the role that we all have in maintaining safe communities by following safety guidelines (e.g. not providing access to strangers, reporting strangers at school or in our neighborhoods, reporting safety threats) communicating any personal safety concerns to trusted adults or community leaders.
4. Review safety procedures. Help children to identify at least one trusted adult in the community to whom they go if they feel at risk.
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5. Observe children’s emotional state. Some children may not express their concerns verbally. Changes in behavior, appetite and sleep patterns can also indicate a child’s level of anxiety or discomfort. In most children, these symptoms will ease with reassurance and time. However, some children may be at risk for more intense reactions. Children who have had a past traumatic experience or personal loss, suffer from depression or other mental illness, or with special needs may be at a greater risk. If behavior persists Tanager Place can assist with support.
6. Limit television viewing of these events.
7. Help your children to maintain their normal routine.
• Okpara Rice is CEO of Tanager Place, a children’s organization that helps more than 4,000 children and families in the Creative Corridor.