Gene Beresin, MD, co-director of the Center for Mental Health and Media and medical director of the MGH Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Outpatient Clinic, shares advice on how to talk to children and teenagers after a national tragedy.
Below is an excerpt, here is the full article.
Today a horrible school shooting killed a number of young children in an elementary school in Newtown, CT. Naturally in the wake of such a tragic situation parents are struggling with the urgent issue of how to help their children and families. Many of the surviving children witness bloodshed at the site, and others around the nation may see images and videos of it on television.
The key question here is how to help young children in such a terrifying situation.
Children of all ages will ask the primary questions:
Am I safe?
Are you, the people who take care of me, safe?
How will these events affect my daily life?
It’s important to provide answers to these questions, even if your children don’t put them into words. You should expect to answer these questions several times over the next few weeks. Let’s think both the immediate reactions and responses and similar ones over into the immediate future.
Parents and caregivers should to try to address what their child is experiencing by asking “What are your questions, concerns, and what are you worried about?” Kids have different fears. Many will worry about continued school shootings and others will worry about such events spilling over to other areas, such as their homes, neighborhoods and playgrounds. For kids of all ages, it is really important to let them know that these kinds of events are incredibly rare. They should be told (over and over) that your school and schools nationwide are very safe places. Ask them to think of all the time have spent in school, the times their older siblings have spent in school and that things like this really do not happen much at all.
However, simple reassurance in the immediate phase may not be all that calming. It needs to be repeated over the next number of weeks.
Also, while it may seem counterintuitive to think about taking care of yourself, many studies have shown that in the wake of natural and manmade disasters, the emotional stability and security of parents must come first. It is akin to what we always hear from airline attendants: “If the pressure drops, put the oxygen mask on yourself first, then help the child next to you.” Children are certainly reacting to what they have seen or heard. However, they are looking carefully at how their parents are reacting.
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