Try as one can to protect a young child from terrifying images and vivid news stories about school shootings, the realities of these incidents will become the topic of conversation for children of all ages. A child of any age may get as much mis-information as actual factual information from peers: in some instances, the silence about school violence can scare a child as much as known facts.
Some parents don’t talk about the school incidents, hoping to shield the child from knowing about them, but if the child gets snatches of information from peers, the silence of the parents or caregivers and teachers may be filled with a child’s active imaginings. Often, too, children overhear conversations among adults, and sometimes those conversations become heated, especially if the adults become argumentative.
Remember this about children: Children see and hear most everything, but with their limited experience they don’t understand everything. In the void, they put their own interpretations on the events and the silence of their parents. They may wonder if the topic is too terrible to talk about or conclude that their parents are hiding something from them.
In today’s environment, the issues of mass shootings, mental illness and gun control are hot topics, and children pick up the emotions of the adults, whether they understand them or not. Children catch the fear and anger of the adults just as they catch a virus. As the Rodgers and Hammerstein song from South Pacific teaches, “You have to be taught to hate and fear, you have to be taught from year to year.”
What’s a parent to do to protect a child’s tender nature in this current climate?
Face your own fears: Be honest with yourself and with trusted friends, family members, colleagues or therapists about the exact nature or your own fears. Identify precisely what it is that evokes your fear. What do you fear most? What is the worst thing that can happen? Are you plagued more by free-floating anxiety or by specific fears about specific dangers? How does the fear affect your sleep, your health, your productivity on the job?
Manage your fears: Be well-acquainted with how you express your particular fears. Do you withdraw or numb yourself with any substance (food, drink, drugs) or distraction (shopping, excessive sleeping, television, gambling) when you are afraid? Do you wear your fear as anger, lashing out at your spouse, your child or a friend? Do you stick your head in the sand, hoping that if you don’t see it, it won’t be true?
Get clear about your particular management style and ask yourself how it is working for you. Telling yourself the truth about how you are doing is a good way to begin in managing your fears.
Be the adult in the room: Children of all ages need for the adults in their lives to be strong. When an adult abdicates that responsibility and gives in to fear and anger, the child often internalizes those emotions as his own. Sadly, when a parent acts like a child, the child sometimes loses his own childhood in order to take emotional care of the parent.
Being the adult in the room may require you to tell the truth to the child about what is happening. Make your account age-appropriate for the child. Let the child’s questions lead your answers so that you don’t tell too much or too little.
Reassure the child: Tell the child all of the things that you and their teachers and other authority figures are doing to keep him safe. Pledge to the child that his safety is a top priority, but don’t promise what you can’t deliver. Reassure the child that you will do everything that you can possibly do to make sure that he is safe. Children catch anger and fear from adults, but they also catch calmness, courage and composure.
Live as normally as possible: Go about your business as much as you can. Keep a similar routine, but if and when you have to break it, explain to the child why you are doing it. Provide activities that are fun for the child and always, tell the child you love him every day.
To learn more about Jeanie and her work, visit www.jeaniemiley.com