“Your children are not safe anywhere, at any time.” This chilling announcement was made on television and in newspaper headlines in the fall of 2002 after a sniper in the Washington, DC, area had killed ten and critically wounded three people, including a middle school boy on a playground. Accounts of the ordeal of Elizabeth Smart, who was 14 years old when she was snatched from her own bed in Salt Lake City in June 2002, badly frightened children who normally felt safe in their homes. At Columbine High School, in Littleton, Colorado, two boys killed twelve students, a teacher, and themselves in April 1999. At Miami’s Southwood Middle School, a magnet school for music and the arts that had had no history of violence, a 14-year-old boy was charged with murdering a classmate in the bathroom in February 2004.
In the wake of such events, the media frequently contact me for advice to give to parents. Here are some tips I’ve used to help parents communicate with their children as they face tragedy in their schools and communities or in the world beyond.
- Communicate with your children. When something bad has happened, explain the circumstances to children in terms that they can understand. Be realistic but brief; dwelling on the subject may cause them to become more anxious.
- Watch television or listen to the radio with your children. The media can provide useful tools to help children understand the seriousness of the situation. Watching or listening with your children gives them a chance to ask you questions and allows you to explain what they don’t understand.
- However, limit media viewing. While some exposure conveys pertinent information and can be reassuring, repeated viewing of fearful incidents leaves traumatic imagery in the minds of young children and even adolescents.
- Encourage children’s questions. Unanswered questions leave children fearful. Assure them that no question is too silly to ask. In fact, gifted children may surprise you with the depth and sensitivity of their questions.
- Reassure children of their day-to-day security. They should go on with their lives, because concentrating on their daily activities will help them cope with their fears. If schools are temporarily closed because of the threat of violence or a natural disaster, assure children that in time the schools will reopen and classes will continue as before. Be sure that they are not left alone when school has been canceled.
- Explain that their community or country will protect them. Even if you have lost some of your own confidence, your children will need your reassurance.
- Remind children that criminals, like the Washington-area sniper and Elizabeth Smart’s kidnappers, are almost always caught.
- Don’t burden children with information they can’t comprehend, but don’t underestimate their ability to understand, either. Answer their questions to the best of your ability, but acknowledge that you don’t have all the answers.
- Help your children find ways to contribute. Activities such as s erving food to the homeless, donating birthday money to a charity, or tutoring classmates teach children that they can make the world a better place. Taking action also prevents them from feeling helpless and can alleviate their stress.
- Don’t teach children to hate. Hate crimes committed against individuals of a given religion, color, or ethnicity can create anxiety for children with the same background. Conversely, whole populations shouldn’t be blamed for the crimes of a small minority of individuals.
- Address the special concerns of children with family members serving in the armed forces. These children need extra support, hugs, and affection. Praying together and sharing the belief that their parents, siblings, or other loved ones will return home safe provides much-needed reassurance.
- Play with your children. Whether outdoors or indoors, playing games together often helps reduce the anxieties and tensions children feel and allows parents to answer questions informally that children might not ask otherwise. It also preserves a sense of normalcy.
- Encourage children to explore creative outlets for their fears, emotions, or distress. Art, music, poetry, and stories help children share their feelings instead of internalizing them and becoming more anxious.
All children are vulnerable to personal, community, and global tragedies, but gifted children may ask more in-depth questions and be more attuned to trauma in the family or global environment. Family and adult support keeps them feeling secure and teaches them resilience.
—Sylvia B. Rimm, PhD
Sylvia B. Rimm is a child psychologist, director of the Family Achievement Clinic, and clinical professor at Case School of Medicine.
Common Responses to Traumatic Events
- Withdrawal from friends or activities
- Escape to television or reading
- Drop in grades
- Defiance, anger, or aggression (i.e., problems with authority, contempt for a specific racial or ethnic group, or bullying)
- Anxiety and fear
- Nightmares or upsetting thoughts and images
- Sleep disturbances, insomnia, or an increased need for sleep
- Feeling of powerlessness or of being overwhelmed
- Difficulty concentrating
- Restlessness or agitation
- Emotional outbursts or crying spells
- Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment, by Martin E. P. Seligman, Free Press, 2004
- Spirit of Survival, by Gail Sheehy, Bantam, 1987