By Stacey Meadows, MSW, LCSW-C
News of a shooting in a public place is always scary. We have been able to quell our own, and our children’s fears, with stories like, “that kind of thing doesn’t happen here.” So, what happens when a tragedy occurs close to home at a shopping mall or at our child’s school?
For parents this question is two-fold. As individuals we are faced with the gravity of our own grief and sadness. But as parents, almost immediately those personal emotions are cast aside as we instinctually ask ourselves, “What should I be doing to protect my children?” Or, perhaps even, “Can I protect my child?”
While we may be unable to prevent tragedy in the lives of our children, we can certainly make an effort to support our children when such tragedies occur.
Process your own feelings first.
Tragedy, local or afar, can touch us deeply. These events can bring up feelings for us that are old and new. Just like our children, we as adults must take time to process our own feelings, worries, and fears about tragedy. Children tend to take emotional cues from their important adults – when you worry, they worry. By processing your feelings first, you will be better able to respond to questions more comfortably, or the feelings experienced by your child, as well as helping you to support your child in learning how to manage those feelings.
Keep a normal routine.
Children thrive in environments that are safe and predictable. Routines provide children with a sense of control and have been clinically shown to assist in reducing anxiety in both children and adults. While our instincts may be to want to keep our children home, within our view, or interrupt their routines out of worry and care, long term disruption is likely to result in an increase in a child’s anxiety levels. It can be appropriate to wait some time before returning to the place where the tragedy occurred or to make extra effort to spend time with your children to reassure and support them but make effort to retain as much structure and predictability as you can.
Let your child do most of the talking.
Begin by gently asking your child what information they might already know about the incident. Answer questions or clear up misunderstandings without using excessive detail. Unlike adults who often seek facts and reason in trying to understand tragedy, children only need to feel safe and supported. Help your child to identify feelings, like fear, anxiety, sadness, letting them know these feelings are normal, and perhaps that you are experiencing those feelings too. While you may want to talk with your child about the incident, it is important to remember that your child might not need, or be ready to, talk to you. Try not to force them to talk, rather, let them know that you are available and ready to talk with them anytime they have questions or concerns. Consider age-appropriate ways to give and share information, to grieve and connect with your community, like attending prayer vigils or fund raisers.
Limit access to public media.
For better or for worse, television and news stations tend to become hyper focused on tragedies, especially those that occur locally. Unfortunately, coverage often replays footage of distressing images alongside repeated accountings of the event. Research has shown that this kind of media coverage can induce significant, and sometime clinical, trauma responses in both adults and children. Children watching these images can become confused and increasingly upset, believing that the event is occurring more than one time. Additionally, by allowing children to witness media coverage, you are no longer in control of what information they obtain and how they obtain it. In the age of cell phones and the internet, news travels fast! Be mindful that social and electronic media sites like Facebook or Google may post articles, videos, or personal commentary regarding these tragedies.
Offer reassurance but emphasize safety.
It is after tragedies that we often begin to create a safety plan – but the fact of the matter is that you should ALWAYS have a safety plan. Not only will these plans provide your child with information that can help keep them safe, but they will also serve to reassure the child, and build confidence and competence in potentially dangerous situations.
It is my hope that this guidance can serve to help you in creating healthy, and supportive dialogue with your children regarding tragedy. Should you feel that you, or your child, are experiencing significant trauma response or need additional clinical support or intervention, I encourage you to reach out to a mental health practitioner.
Stacey Meadows, MSW, LCSW-C, is a Senior Manager of Clinical Services at JCS.
Jewish Community Services (JCS) provides programs and services for people of all ages and backgrounds, helping them achieve their goals, enhance their wellbeing, and maximize their independence. To learn more, visit jcsbalt.org or 410-466-9200.