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Helping children to cope with violence

The recent tragic shootings have both shocked the nation and also brought a new focus on teen and young adult violence. As counselors and grief therapists are working with the families and the students across the country to cope with the fear, trauma, and loss of friends, family and loved ones, concerned parents are worried about how their children will be affected by the violence that they are experiencing in their daily lives.

This article offers some helpful suggestions on how to speak with your children about violence; how to ease their anxieties and fears; and how to protect them from future violence.

How Will Children Respond to a Tragedy?

With the media’s coverage of the numerous incidents of violence in our schools, nearly all children have developed an awareness of the potential dangers that have occurred on our nation’s campuses. How they will respond to these incidents depends entirely on a child’s age, personality and maturity level. Some children under the age of nine years old, may not be able to grasp the reality of these incidents or understand that violence could affect their own lives. Some children may become frightened by a fear that something could happen to them. And others will seek to protect themselves from these fears through the use of denial, cynicism or apathy or other common defense mechanisms. Despite how your child responds, he or she will be looking to you as their parent to provide answers, guidance, and support.

How Can Parents Help?

It is important that as parents you speak to your child about the incident in an open and honest manner. Make sure that you adapt your conversation to the age level of your child. Children deserve honest answers to their questions. It is not necessary to provide the child with every detail about the incident, but do not hold back too much information. This will help you to instill trust in your child while at the same time helping him or her to understand what has happened. It is alright to admit to your child that you do not have an answer to all of his or her questions. As parents, we need to accept that we will not have an explanation for all the things that happen in the world.

Encourage your child to express his or feelings about the situation. Children generally feel better then they have an opportunity to talk about their feelings. It can be helpful to use leading questions such as “How do you feel? Does it make you feel scared? What worries you the most?” These questions will help your child to sort out his or her feelings. It is helpful to encourage your child to be honest and open in their responses. Listen carefully to their words for hints about hidden feelings or worries that your children may be expressing.

Reassure your child that his or her feelings are normal. Respond to your child’s feelings, while acknowledging his or her fears. It is important to continually reassure your child that he or she is safe. Discuss with your child that this is a rare and unusual incident. Avoid making false promises such as “I will never let this happen to you” and “Nothing bad will ever happen to you.” While these statements will be reassuring to your child, in the long run the child will be disappointed when he or realizes that their parents can not protect them from harm. Instead offer your child your love, support and guidance and tell them “I will protect you and keep you safe.” Also remind your child that his or her teachers and the police are also there to protect and look out for his or her safety.

Monitor the media. Monitor and limit the amount of television that your child watches. If your child sees disturbing footage or interviews over and over, his or her fears and anxieties may become escalated. It may be helpful to also monitor the amount of general violence that your child views on television and at the movies.

Speak with your child’s school. Confirm with your children’s teachers and/or the school principal if any plan has been implemented to address a tragedy. Although school shootings are rare events, after a tragic incident like the ones in Colorado and San Diego, many concerns have been voiced about student safety. The schools have been talking with the students and the community regarding the issue of safety issues and reassuring them that the school officials are doing everything possible to keep the children safe.

Pay close attention to your child. Pay particular attention to your child’s behavior and if you note any unusual changes in your child this could indicate that he or she is reacting to stress, fear, or trauma. Learn how to recognize the warning signs and seek the assistance of your Employee Assistance Program professional if you have any concerns.

If your child expresses any fears about going back to school, be sympathetic and talk to your child about his or her anxieties. Attempt to convince your child to be brave and explain to him or her that it is necessary to confront and gradually overcome their anxieties. Reassure your child that you will be there to help him or her with this process. In addition, speak to your child’s teacher about your child’s anxieties or fears and ask the teacher to provide his or her guidance, support, and encouragement. Together, you will be able to help your child through this difficult period.

Again, if your child’s school phobia or fears continue for an extended period of time, then a consultation with your Employee Assistance Program profession may be helpful. The EAP can be reached at (800) 395-1616 where you can speak with a counselor who can help you and your child deal with this situation.

What can parents do to help prevent violence?

Each time there is an incident of violence in our schools, parents frequently want to know what they can do to protect their children. Although this is a complex issue that will need to be addressed on many different levels of society, the following tips can be helpful:

• Be sure to alert your child to stay away from other children who threaten violence and to report any threats or suspicious behaviors to school officials or to you.

Keep the lines of communication open between you and your child. Encourage your child to come to you with any concerns, problems, or fears. Also, ask your child questions about his or her friends, their activities and their feelings.

Clear up any confusion or misconceptions that your child may hold. Children frequently use the media and their peers as the primary sources of information about violence. Children are unable to distinguish between dramatic images and actual dangers. Many children mistakenly believe that only strangers can be dangerous. Clear up these kinds of misconceptions and instead of simply warning your child about strangers teach your child how to detect uncomfortable situations and actions.

Be a good role model. Your actions and behaviors should match your instructions to your child. Do not resort to violence for any reason and continually provide your child with examples of non-violent solutions to problems.

Take a course in mediation skills so you can help your child peacefully work out problems and conflicts. Your local school, police department, YMCA, Boys and Girls Club, local hospital, counseling center or the United Way may be able to advise you of any courses offered for adults and/or children in your community.

Educate your children about the dangers of guns and weapons. Strictly forbid your children using them. Remind your children that these weapons are both illegal and potentially deadly.

Posted on Thursday, April 19, 2007

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