Maria Trozzi, M. Ed., guest speaker at the Thrive Fall Institute for parents of teens, has written a guide for adults dealing with children in the aftermath of Newtown. Maria Trozzi is Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at Boston University School of Medicine and the Director of the Good Grief Program at Boston Medical Center.
WORDS, STRATEGIES AND ‘WHY’ TO TALK TO CHILDREN
Maria Trozzi, M.Ed, Boston University School of Medicine, Director of the Good Grief Program at Boston Medical Center
The most pressing questions that we, as parents and adults, have as we face yesterday’s tragedy are
1) how do we talk to our children, and
2) how can we reassure our children and ourselves that we are doing everything we can to keep us safe
The airline instruction to ‘put on our OWN oxygen masks before we put on our children’s’ comes to mind.
1. Limit YOUR EXPOSURE to media coverage
It can feel almost addictive to need to sit in front of the TV as the drama unfolds over and over. It’s our adult way of trying to sort out what happened. The endless news stories about the ‘real people’ in this tragedy will seduce us to watch, read, reflect and feel in the days and weeks ahead. However, this exposure can overwhelm us and heighten our own sense of vulnerability. Be prudent and especially avoid exposure to our children. Young children, in particular, cannot distinguish between real time and what they see on the screen.
2. Be aware of your child’s age and developmental stage as you help them to sort out their thoughts and feelings.
Understand that we can’t completely shield our children from what happened. What we can do is provide them with information that is developmentally informed.
Children look to the adults in their lives whom they trust for answers; their parents, their grandparents, their teachers, their clergy. We need to do our best to sort out our own thoughts, beliefs and feelings before we speak with our children.
We need to present information to them in a calm way, giving ourselves permission to show our sadness and horror while we also project our capacity to care for our children. They need to see that we care, that we feel terrible about this tragedy, and that we do everything we can to keep them safe. Don’t project your adult fears onto your children. They will take their cues from your behavior.
Children, ages 3-6
Keep your explanations simple (two or three sentences). Limit exposure to conversations with older siblings if possible. Speak calmly and continue with routines. Good news…. f they have always felt safe in their home and community, they will ‘assume’ that you will continue to keep them safe.
Children, ages 6-10
From the time children enter school, they are apt to worry about the safety of their world. They will not believe you if you say, “No, this could never happen here.” However you can and must offer them perspective.
School age children may ask for details that make us uncomfortable. They are trying their best to sort out something that is beyond their capacity to understand. Ask them what they know already? What they are thinking and feeling? Your reassurance that although a terrible thing occurred in a school like their own, you believe that they are safe and that their schools are safe and it’s your job to keep them safe.
e.g. We know (and they know) that accidents occur. That’s why we wear seat belts and bike helmets. Yet, we still get into cars and we still ride bikes. It’s the same with school safety. For this school in this town, yesterday morning, some of the children and adults were NOT safe; however, it’s very, very very rare for this kind of violence to occur. (It’s hard to remember that when faced with this tragedy, but it is true.)
Children (and families) already struggling with a stressor such as a family illness or loss may be more vulnerable to symptoms of stress; e.g. trouble sleeping, eating, clinging behaviors, nightmares, stomach aches, headaches. Be aware of it and know that that’s normal. If symptoms don’t abate with time, consult your pediatrician.
Children, ages 10-young adult
Pre-adolescents are familiar with the painful realities of their world. They understand that violence and death carry heavy burdensome feelings. They may react to this tragedy by attempting to dismiss or avoid the feelings because they feel overwhelmed.
Adolescents may want to engage with you about the philosophical ‘why’s’ and what it means to live in a world that at times feels scary and uncertain. Although you may not feel you have ‘wisdom’ about these issues, listening to your teen more and talking less is helpful. Reminding him about perspective and what you do to cope is helpful.
3. In a crisis, the ‘danger’ is obvious; the ‘opportunity’ is hidden.
Denial is a normal defense mechanism for both adults and children. Offering explanations that ‘distance’ ourselves as we attempt to understand this tragedy is normal and makes us feel less helpless. However, explaining away this horrible violence as mental illness and/or asperger’s or as access to weapons is self-serving and stigmatizing.
Reasons for this violence are complicated and may never be totally understood. Explaining and connecting this unspeakable violence with mental illness or autism is dangerous and faulty. Would we say that being a young adult or a male is an explanation given that historically, the perpetrators of large-scale violence have been young adult males?
WHAT CAN WE DO?
We can create a national conversation in each of our own communities about:
- Early identification of ‘troubled’ children and adolescents and access to effective psychiatric treatment
- Psychoeducation about and psychological services in the schools where children are identified
- Better access for ALL children and families to mental health services
- Home, school, community focus on modeling tolerance and mitigating isolation for children who are ‘different’
- Making informed decisions about our children’s exposure to media violence, both on television and films.
- Rethinking our decisions about our children’s exposure to violent video games.
- Reconsidering our nation’s laws about purchasing and possessing automatic weapons.
It is emotionally incongruous for us to move forward into the holiday season while we as a nation grieve this tragedy. For many of us, we had successfully dismissed the mall shooting in Oregon that occurred less than a week ago as we shopped for presents in our own local malls.
However, renewing and sustaining a conversation within our families, our schools, our churches and our communities about what we CAN do going forward will ultimately protect our children and their future.