By Natasha Persaud
School shootings, earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis, terrorist attacks. The list of bad news kids may be exposed to is long.
As a parent, you have the ongoing challenge of helping your child deal with the world around him. In fact, you are your child’s number one role model. With your own insecurities, helping your child may seem a tall order.
Fortunately, even if you don’t have answers to all the tough questions, such as “Why did this happen?,” you can have a powerful influence on helping your child through it.
"Tragedies make no sense," says Rachel G. Klein, Ph.D., professor of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at the NYU Child Study Center. "And it’s impossible to make the world perfect for your child. But your response to tragedy and the way you talk about it with your child can help her foster resilience."
Here, we asked Klein to address common questions about helping our kids cope:
News travels fast these days with 24/7 TV and radio coverage, the internet and mobile devices...
1. The chances that a child will see or hear tragic news is high. Does that make it harder for a child to cope?
I think the internet and round-the-clock media coverage actually desensitizes children to tragedy. A child hears and sees bad news so often, it becomes background noise. I’m not saying that it’s a good thing, but it is a byproduct of new technology.
2. When a tragedy occurs, do you have to discuss it with your child?
Kids are pretty good at sensing that anything outside of their immediate experience doesn’t affect them. The Colorado shooting, for example, might seem far away from their daily lives. So you may not need to have an in-depth conversation about it.
Let your child’s reaction be your guide. If your youngster is normally talkative and easily expresses feelings, you might share your own thoughts—without over-emoting. You could say, "I find that shooting really awful. Do you think about it?"
On the other hand, if your child normally doesn’t express her feelings or worries excessively, bring up the topic in a neutral way, so you don’t inadvertently provoke anxiety. Gently correct any false fears and misinformation, and be supportive.
You don’t want to criticize your child for her reaction or try to control what she thinks. Instead offer her ways to look at the situation that prevent her from believing she is a victim.
3. What should be the goal of parents’ communication?
The goal here isn’t brutal honesty. As much as honesty is a virtue, it doesn’t help your child cope with senseless tragedy. You want to listen closely to your child’s feelings and offer reassurance.
Your child may be wondering, Am I safe? Don’t offer a complicated answer. Simply reassure a child that "Everything is going to be okay."
If your child asks, "Could this happen again?," your response could be: "Let’s not worry about that. I can understand how you feel, but there’s nothing to be afraid of."
Our number one job as parents is to help our children develop healthy ways of coping with a stressful event, not to generate additional concern.
4. What are signs my child may be abnormally anxious following a disaster?
Look for two important clues. The first is your child has difficulty falling asleep. He suddenly becomes clingy close to bedtime and he grows tense.
Another signal that something is wrong: your child doesn’t venture outside as she used to. Instead, she stays at home and may refuse to go to school.
If either of these behaviors are severe or persist, visit a mental health professional.
5. How can I help my child develop resilience?
If your child feels sad or helpless, help her discover ways to make a difference. Raising money for victims’ families and getting involved in other charitable events are positive steps. Social media makes it easy to spread the word about supporting a good cause.
Your child will also take cues from you. She’ll unconsciously model your attitude and behavior. That’s why it’s so important to develop your own resources for coping. Make a tremendous effort not to burden your child with your own worries. Share your feelings with other adults, and avoid treating your child as a confidant.
Staying positive and participating in a brighter future will give both you and your child the courage to move forward.