Posted: July 26th, 2011 by Michele Borba
Parenting advice to help soothe kid worries about the Norway tragedy and tips to talk about the tragedy with your children
The horrific shooting spree in Norway last weekend which killed 80 people – most of them young people – has left adults shocked and a world shaken. But let’s not forget our kids. They are hearing the news and some will be affected more than others.
The tragedy is covered on every news channel. Newspapers continue to feature photos of victims on front pages. Adults are talking. But just because a child isn’t talking about a tragedy, doesn’t mean he isn’t affected by an event.
Make no mistake: the Norway attack will be discussed amongst kids on the playground, in cafeterias and on those soccer fields–and especially so because precious teenagers were victims and at a “summer camp for young people.” That’s why it’s important that you talk to your child about this tragedy, that you monitor your child’s emotional well-being and that you are available to answer any questions.
How to Help Your Child During This or Any Tragedy
“Terrorist.” “Gunshot.” “Rampage.” “Gunpowder.” “Gunshot wound.” “Shot point-blank in the head.” “Slain.” Those are just a few of the words I picked up from newscasters on the morning’s broadcasts in just five minutes.
• Anticipate Concerns: Kids zero in on those violent terms faster than we do and depending on their age may misinterpret those events. Tune into what your child says for clues. Anticipate what your child may concern your child. Then start a dialogue addressing those concerns.
A child’s biggest worry after a tragedy is: “Such an event could happen here and it could happen to me and to the people I love and care about. Will I be safe?”
The fact that this happened at a summer camp may also trigger anxieties especially to older teens: “But I’m going to camp. Will that happen to me?” “My best friend is at a camp. Will he come to get her, too?”
• Offer Perspective: “That event happened a long way from here.” “The police put that bad man in jail so everyone is safe.” “All the doctors, firemen and police ran to help.” “Everything is safe now.”
• Don’t Dwell: Just use a calm, reassuring, matter of fact statement that conveys safety. Answer questions directly, honestly, but at your child’s level of understanding. Children also process information differently than adults. They may only tune into parts of what you say as they try to make sense of this information. They may also ask repeated questions. Take your child’s lead.
Tune Into Your Child’s Emotions
The events of a tragedy affect children differently. The truth is we don’t know how our child will handle a tough event. So watch your child’s face and body language.
A change in a child’s “normal” behavior is always a clue. For instance, a change in sleep, nightmares, tummy aches, headaches, inability to focus, more jittery, acting out, suddenly clingy, doesn’t want to leave you, changes eating habits. Look also for more subtle cues: a pounding heart, a quivering chin, “bigger eyes.”
How Children May Be Affected By A Tragedy
There are no hard rules but here are things to consider about a tragedy as to which children are more likely to be affected:
• The closer in proximity a child is to the physical event – for instance, you live in Norway or you have relatives there – the more likely the child will be affected. Also: If the child personally knows the victim, the more the child be be affected.
• If the child is more sensitive or anxious in nature.
If the child has endured a recent trauma such as a parent’s deployment, a divorce, a death. If the child identifies with the victim (same age, gender, or other characteristic).
A child can also seem fine now but display emotional signs later. You just don’t know, so tune in closer. The child may also be unaffected by an event. You just don’t know.
Provide Accurate Information
News is a 24-hour cycle these days. The Norway tragedy event will be played and replayed as details emerge.
Unless your child is very young chances are he will hear about this tragedy.
Peers do talk, televisions are left on for snippets to be overheard, newspapers lay around, the Internet is a constant source of news. More often than not those facts your child receives about a tragedy won’t be accurate and can fuel anxiety. That’s why you need to clarify those real facts and make sure the information about this or any tough topic come from you. Open up that dialogue.
Discussion starters: “What have you heard?” or “What are your friends saying?” or “Let’s talk about what you just saw on the news.” Always tailor the facts to your child’s understanding and give only those details that he really needs to know.
The American Association of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry offers these tips:
Preschool: Don’t let children watch a lot of TV. Repetition of events are disturbing.
Ages 5 to 9: Don’t be surprised with questions such as “Why do people kill? Why would someone want to kill those kids?” Be honest. You may not know that answer. Don’t be turned off by those questions. You want your kids to ask–and keep asking.
Ages 10 to 12: They may not want to chat but it doesn’t mean they’re not thinking about the tragedy. An opener such as: “What are your friends saying?” may begin the conversation.
Age 13 and over: This age may try to minimize the event or argue more with you then want to discuss what happened. Because victims were teens this age may also be more affected. Tune in. Most teens can be involved in discussions about the news and stimulating conversations can result. Teachers, coaches, scout masters, camp directors may be discussing this with your tween or teen so you can spin off: “What have you heard?” Or use a newspaper clipping to begin the conversation.
Limit your child’s news access over the next few days or turn off the television. Plop in a video that you know will not have interrupted news broadcasts. Stories providing such graphic details about the mental health of a killer or the shooting scene or the medical condition of victims (or how they died) can induce stress. If your kids do watch the news, watch with them to answer their questions.
A survey of middle school children found that one of their biggest fears was those late-breaking news reports without an adult there to interpret it for them. So don’t assume that your older child will not be affected by the news.
Research also shows that younger children do not have the cognitive understanding to recognize that the televised images they are seeing or hearing may be repeats. Instead, they assume the event they are watching is happening life. For instance, each time young children saw the televised images of the planes hitting the World Trade Center towers they assumed the event was live. Images of a tragedy can exacerbate a child’s existing anxiety and actually increases aggression in some kids. Monitor the news.
Find Ways to Help Your Worried Child
There are ways to help children feel safer and reduce worries during a tragedy. Here are a few strategies that calm and soothe kids:
Stick to Routines
One of the best ways to alleviate anxiety is to stick to your normal routines. It is comforting and soothing to kids to know that life is normal—even though the news is giving them quite a different message. So stick to your routines. It sends a clear message that after a tragedy that parents keep going to work, kids continue going to school, and the world will go on.
Comfort Kids with Family Activities
In times of stress, your child needs to feel embraced by her family. That’s why it’s a good idea to spend plenty of time doing things together—it helps her feel safe and sends a “we’re all in this together” message. Find tension-releasing activities the entire family can do together. For instance, go for walks or bike rides, pray or meditate, listen to soothing music or watch humorous videos.
Watch Your Behavior
Remember, Actions do speak louder than what you say, so how you act—especially during times of trauma and uncertainty—does make a difference on how your kids act. If you are feeling a bit jittery about current events, imagine how our kids must feel. Children mirror our behavior. If you’re upset, your child is upset. If you worry about the future of our nation, so to does your child. If you’re concerned “This could happen here!” or “No one is safe anymore” you will cloud your child’s view of the world. Watch what you say.
Draw Attention to Heroism and Compassion
Expose your child to the wonderful simple gestures of love and hope that people do for one another during such a tragedy. Talk about the heroes — the bystanders — the paramedics — the doctors! Find those stories in the newspaper and share them.
Ask your child to watch for little actions of kindness they see others do and report them at the dinner table from now own. Many families call those “Good News Repots.” It’s so important to assure your children that there’s more to the world than threats and fear and hate.
Your actions can make a big difference in helping to send them that message. Let’s be the change we want our children to become.
Tips from this blog were adapted from the chapter, “Stressed” in my book, The Big Book of Parenting Solutions: 101 Answers to Your Everyday Challenges and Wildest Worries.
You can also refer to my daily blog, Dr. Borba’s Reality Check for ongoing parenting solutions and late-breaking news and research about child development.