Tragedies can leave all of us feeling unsettled, but in the wake of recent violent events such as the city hall shooting in Kirkwood, it is important to remember that children look to their parents for cues on how to react and cope, and we can help them feel safe during times of trouble.
“The most important thing kids want to know is “Am I safe?,” says Joel Nadler, PhD, clinical psychologist at SSM Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center. “Parents should reassure children of all ages, and tell them flat out that they are safe.”
One of the easiest things you can do on a daily basis is to maintain normal routines and behavioral expectations at home. A child’s home should be his or her safe place, and if clear roles and structure are already established as part of the environment, they will be reassuring. “Having a strong foundation and structure is comforting for children any time,” Nadler says.
Children look to their parents for signals on how to react, and projecting calmness will help ease their feelings of worry. That said, don’t deny your feelings, Nadler says. “It is important for kids to know that it’s ok to feel sad or scared, but that you have to cope with those feelings.
“Stress that anger is natural emotion, and there are times when we all feel it. But, just because we are angry, it is no excuse to hurt someone or even to make threats. Teaching kids to cope with anger appropriately is one of the most important things a parent can do.”
With expanded media coverage and exposure, your child might have questions about what has happened. Nadler says it is important to tell the truth, but temper your response. Children do not need to know every violent detail. Young children do not always understand images they see on TV, so limit their exposure, and watch TV as a family, so you can help interpret images and monitor what they are seeing.
Do something positive as a family, and find strength in your beliefs. “Telling your kids to keep these people in their prayers, or thoughts, gives them something positive that they can do,” Nadler says. “You can also donate money, blankets or food as a family, or volunteer your time. Bad things are going to happen from time to time, but it’s important for children to know that there are good things they can do.”
Finally, keep an eye on your children’s behavior, and look for any signs of anxiety such as trouble sleeping and eating, regressive behavior like bed-wetting, abnormal anger, or fear of sleeping alone or going to school.
“The majority of kids will be fine,” Nadler says. “Children are very resilient, and with parental guidance, their lives will return to normal relatively quickly.”