SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

October 25, 2013

Dr. Kate's Parent Rap: Helping children process school-related violence

Dr. Kate's Parent Rap
Dr. Kate Roberts

---- — The recent events in Danvers hit very close to home for all of us in the Boston area. Coming on the heels of the Marathon bombings and the recent school shooting in Nevada, parents need to be on their toes about how to help their children through this latest episode of violence that left a local teacher dead.

School violence is unpredictable and incomprehensible. Naturally, children and adults feel threatened when they learn of unsafe and violent acts occurring in and near their schools. As much as parents want to protect their children from the reality of the recent events in Danvers, it is very difficult to do so when the violence is in our town or close by to where we live.

Can parents help their children understand and process this very tragic event?

Communicate with your children

Parents need to open up the conversation and give their children the opportunity to discuss their feelings, including their fears and anxieties. Questions don’t have to be answered with specific information and in fact many answers are not available. Just the process of dialogue, listening and offering children a supportive parental ear is enough to increase a child’s sense of safety in the wake of the tragedy.

Younger children will have more difficulty processing the event and having the words to express their thoughts and feelings. At age 8 and younger, children may be inclined to draw how they feel or even act out feelings, through play with dolls or other toys. Drawing can help children with self-expression and allow them to relax as they express their inner feelings through their pictures. Parents and adults can gain insight into a child through their drawings.

Parents should send their children a clear message that everything is being done to make all schools safe and although someone was hurt, that is not a reason for students to fear for their own safety. Frequent and repeated reassurance is essential. After telling kids they are safe, avoid getting into conversations about gory details. Instead, focus on the positive things that are being done to help people. Provide specific examples of behavior that highlight the goodness in people and offer examples of how people help others much more often than they hurt others. While parents can tell their children that they understand their fears, they can also remind them of how they have successfully managed their fears in the past.

Communicate with the school

This is not a time for parents to be shy about communicating with the school. Schools will be overwhelmed, but if a parent has something to say, it is better that they air their concerns. Parents should remain informed through media channels but they should do so at times that their children are not exposed to the information.

Limit exposure to news coverage

Parents should monitor how much exposure a child has to news reports of any traumatic events, including the recent school violence. Research has shown that children under 8 who view traumatic and violent events on television and the Internet believe that the event reoccurs every time they view it. Children this young cannot erase violent images from their mind, once exposed to the images. Avoid discussing the event with other adults in the presence of children, even teens and tweens as they can be prone to suggestibility and strong emotions, which may hinder their quick recovery back to their typical life and routine. Once the events are discussed appropriately, avoid over-focusing on them even if children and teens try to discuss them.

Signs of trouble in your child

Most children are quite resilient and although they need to process these violent and unexpected life events, they bounce back quickly to resume their full lives.

Warning signs that a child is struggling in the aftermath of tragedy include newly developed separation anxiety, school refusal, anxiety about upcoming school or unfamiliar events, ruminations about unfamiliar upcoming events, and saying no to doing activities they would typically participate in. Other symptoms include nightmares, sleep disturbance and avoidance of routine activities. Physical signs such as headaches or stomachaches, or loss of pleasure and inability to have typical fun are also signs of difficulty processing and moving on. If these are present, ask for help from the pediatrician and perhaps counseling is indicated. All children are different, and some with recent or past trauma histories may react more strongly to unpredictable and tragic events.

Parenting Tip: The best thing parents can do is for their children in the wake of tragedy is use it as an opportunity to connect with their children. Parents can talk with their children about their fears and take the time to listen and provide reassurance. When talking with children in the tween and teen years it may be a time for parents to share their own feelings, including sadness about the situation. Reconnecting at times of grief and loss can bring families and people together. Once the event is processed, parents can help children resume normal life activities as quickly as possible.

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Dr. Kate Roberts is a psychologist and parent coach on the North Shore. Questions can be directed to www.drkateroberts.com, www.twitter.com/DrKateParenting, www.facebook.com/Dr.KateRoberts or www.pinterest.com/DrKateParenting.