OPINION – After I learned about the horrific tragedy that befell innocent students and adults at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn. on Dec. 14, the first thing I did was call my wife and discuss how we would discuss it with our children. I worried it would be difficult to help them make sense of the senseless violence that shocked an entire nation. I couldn’t even make sense of it. I knew the rumors and speculation would grow over the weekend, so we decided to discuss the events with them before they went back to school on Monday.
Our boys showed sadness and concern for the victims and their families, but they didn’t express fear for their own safety. It was too far removed for them to feel unsafe in their own school.
Their reaction didn’t surprise me because I know that children are naturally resilient in the face of threat if they are in the supportive presence of parents and other adults. I worry more about how adults handle these events than how children will handle them. Children will most always follow the emotional lead of the adults around them.
Granted, some children will feel afraid for their safety after something like this happens no matter what their parents do to comfort them. It’s safe to say, however, that parents and adults have a significant influence on how well children handle the aftermath of these events.
Children deserve to be sheltered from the horrors of the world around them. I love the way Roberto Benigni’s character in the movie “Life is Beautiful” shields his young son from the brutalities of a Nazi concentration camp by turning their experience into a game. Although this example is fiction, the point is well illustrated that adults should do everything in their power to immerse young children in joy especially in the worst of situations.
The anxiety and fear we carry as adults navigating an unpredictable world can actually overwhelm our children more than the events going on around us. They cue off of us and determine how safe they are based on our reactions. In general, they don’t know they’re supposed to be scared unless we communicate those fears to them through our words and action.
If we’re glued to the news to get the latest on a tragic event and change up their routine, then they’ll be anxious even if they don’t know what’s going on. The best thing we can do to manage our own anxiety and fear while protecting our children is to stick with the routine and show them that their life is still the same.
If we have a need to talk through these events with someone else, we should do so out of range of our children. Their biggest concern isn’t going to be whether or not they’re safe at school. It’s always about whether or not their parents are accessible and responsive to their needs in their own environment.
Also, be careful to avoid asking questions that suggest to your children that they should be afraid. For example, if your children begin talking about the shootings, it’s best to ask an open-ended question like, “What do you think of the shootings in that school?” Listen to hear if they even have any concerns and do your best to answer their questions honestly and directly according to their age-appropriate understanding.
On the other hand, if you reassure them that they’ll be safe at their school or tell them that you’ll make sure this never happens to them, before you even know if it’s distressing to them, you’ll be suggesting to them that they should be afraid and anxious.
Find out what they think and feel about it, and then address only the concerns they lead with. Children’s security comes from the caring presence of adults who are tuned into their needs moment to moment. Giving our children extra hugs out of our own anxiety isn’t going to reduce their anxiety. It might actually confuse them as their anxious, fearful, and tearful parent is all of the sudden squeezing them as if there is some imminent threat.
We should do everything in our power to protect our children, but overwhelming them with our own fears and anxieties doesn’t protect them. It only makes us feel temporarily better while burdening them with fear and anxiety they can do nothing about.
I encourage you to turn off the news while your children are around and tune into their lives. You will do more to protect your children by paying attention to the needs that are right in front of you everyday than by trying to predict how you can keep them safe from unforeseen dangers in the future.
Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in St. George, Utah. He specializes in working with couples in all stages of their relationships. The opinions stated in this article are solely his and not those of St. George News.
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