With scary and traumatizing events in the news, such as school shootings, your children may be frightened about their safety. If you’re wondering what’s best to do to ease their child’s fears, here are my five points for building your approach:
1. Filter and Process Information
Use your own adult wisdom to properly screen the traumatic information coming to your child to ensure it’s age appropriate. I suggest that for all but the most mature children, you simply turn off the radio and TV. Even if you think your toddler doesn’t understand what is being said on the TV, the visual images are frightening. You can get information on the event yourself later by reading about it online, or by watching the news after the kids go to bed. Discussions are less likely to incite fear and anxiety than a news report will.
Even with the TV off, children will be hearing about the news through social media. With kids going online at younger ages than ever before, you will have to be prepared to explain, discuss and help make sense of what they are hearing. Make your parental presence felt as that will create feelings of security.
2. Don’t Lie
When discussing difficult matters, whether it is a random shooting, an abduction, an earthquake or someone’s cancer diagnosis, it’s important that you don’t lie. A child will likely uncover a lie and feel betrayal, lack trust in you and they’ll wonder what is wrong with them that their own parents didn’t trust them enough to tell them the truth. Instead, using the screening of information to decide which truthful elements are age appropriate to share. For a young child, you may simply say ‘something tragic happened at a very big mall, and many people are upset because a person died and many many people were scared.’ For an older child, ‘There was a random shooting at a food court and someone got killed. A lot of people were there and so it caused a big public panic. A lot of people were hurt and traumatized.’
3. Help Them Feel Safe
The bigger job is to help our children make sense of the random act of terror and restore a sense of calm security. Parents should reassure their children that Canada is one of the safest countries to live in, and that we have a very low crime rate. In fact, these types of random acts of violence are so rare that statistically speaking, it’s far more dangerous driving to the mall than the chance of being shot at while eating in the food court. I’ve also told my kids that if they don’t get involved in drugs and gangs, and if they pick a good life mate, they have just ruled out most of the reasons there are shootings. It’s more likely you’d be hit by lightning than a stray bullet. Lately, the news has been particularly gruesome so this is also a good time to discuss media and how sensational stories capture more ratings than the more mundane ‘firefighter gets cat down from tree’ type story. If media were properly balanced, we would all see that humanity is largely full of safe, loving people who do good deeds for one another. That is the more accurate depiction of our society.
4. Your Attitude is Infectious
Your children observe your reactions as a barometer for knowing how they should be feeling about events. You cannot properly calm your child’s fears if you are still worried yourself. Deliver your messages with a calm reassurance and don’t over protect or helicopter parent.
5. Respond to Needs for Extra Cuddles
It is natural for a child to become extra clingy when they have experienced some extreme stressor or trauma. They might even act baby-like in order to invite extra nurturing. Be generous with your love and cuddles. Touch has a powerful ability to release a cascade of chemicals in the body that helps relieve stress. Just be sure you don’t alter some basic limits and boundaries or feel pity. Pity sends the message, ‘I don’t believe you can manage,’ when in fact we want our children to know that we believe they can! That is a vote of confidence which builds their self-esteem and sense of security.
One of the most important concepts in Adlerian psychology is encouragement. In fact, it is such a big concept I get deterred from writing about it on my blog because I try to keep my posts to 500 words or less. But recently one of my mentors, Christine Nisan, used very clear concise language that I thought might help parents grasp the concept of encouragement as distinct from praise, since praise is not recommended. Christine said, ‘Think in terms of verbs versus nouns.’
Encouragement is about verbs, praise is about nouns. Here are some encouragement versus praise examples to show you the difference:
You have picked a nice outfit today — vs — you are pretty
You are studying hard — vs — you are smart
When we use the language of encouragement we are helping to reinforce the belief that the person is an active agent in their choices and that they have influence and control in the outcomes of their life. One can choose to dress tidily or sloppy, right? But one has no control over if they are born ‘pretty.’ Likewise, kids think they were born ‘smart’ (noun) and don’t realize that it is the act of studying (verb) and the learning (verb) that lead to their understanding which resulted in getting a good mark.
Adler’s theory of Individual Psychology stresses that all humans are capable of change and we can always do differently. It is freeing and liberating to know you are capable of deciding how you will act. It’s empowering to a child that they can do differently. You can study harder and improve your grades. You can be attentive to your hygiene and clothing and improve your appearance.
If a child believes they are a brat (noun) or a bad girl (noun) because they have been called one, they come to accept that label (noun). It feels fixed and unchangeable and they can get locked into that role in the family. If, however, they understand that they are behaving (verb) in uncooperative ways, they understand that they can choose to act differently!