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Youth Eastside Services director tells how to talk to children about tragic news events
DECEMBER 14, 2012
Patti Skelton-McGougan is Executive Director of Youth Eastside Services (YES)
On behalf of the staff at Youth Eastside Services, I offer our condolences to the families of the victims of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut and the shooting at Clackamas Town Center in Oregon. The news of 29 deaths, 20 of them children, is heartbreaking news for adults; it is even more unfathomable and frightening for children.
In the past year, it seems we have been bombarded with stories about senseless violence. And while such tragedies may create worry for even the most hardy adult, the intensity and constant be especially confusing and frightening for children and teens.
So how do we help our kids cope? As parents, we may not be able to protect our children from crisis, but we can react in a way that prevents it from causing undue stress. When disaster or violence hits the news, we sometimes want to hold our kids closer and avoid similar settings. But it’s important to let them go about their usual activities—even if it includes a trip to the theater.
When kids hear these stories, they often have fears about whether it will happen to them. Talk with them honestly about what happened, but don’t overly focus on it. Sometimes fear can be allayed in older children by helping them plan what they would do to stay safe if they were caught in a dangerous situation.
Here are some other tips for helping kids:
• Encourage children to talk about their feelings. Ask what they have seen or heard and if there’s anything they’re worried about. Then give them only as much information as you feel they need, and let their responses guide you.
• Let your children know their fears and emotions are okay by acknowledging their feelings while providing reassurance. Don’t minimize their concerns by telling them not to worry, especially since any subsequent incident will diminish that line of logic.
• During the heat of the crisis, keep the news off when your kids are in ear shot and try not to bring it up excessively. Even young kids absorb more than you realize, even when they don’t appear to be paying attention.
• Use the news as a teachable moment when you can share your family values. For instance, you might point out the importance of helping those who are unable to help themselves.
• With older children, use the news to discuss tough issues raised in these stories, like accepting people from different religions or cultures.
• Keep the news off when your kids are in earshot and reduce talking about it when they might overhear.
It’s important to remember that as scary as these recent random acts of violence have been, more kids are harmed by guns in the home. Figures gathered from emergency rooms across the US show that around 20,000 children are injured by firearms each year, and 900 incidents are fatal.
If you own a gun, this is an ideal time for a safety check: keep it locked, out of reach of kids, and unloaded. But even if you don’t own a gun, remember your child may still play at a home that has guns, or be exposed to a gun if someone brings it to school or the park.
Tell your children that if another child shows them a gun or they see an adult other than a police officer or soldier with a gun in a public setting, they should absolutely tell you or another adult immediately. If they are alone and have a cell phone, instruct them to dial 9-1-1. Assure them that they won’t be in trouble, and that it could help avoid someone getting hurt or killed.
Patti Skelton-McGougan is Executive Director of Youth Eastside Services (YES). YES is a nonprofit organization and a leading provider of youth counseling and substance abuse services in the region. Since 1968, YES has been a lifeline for kids and families, offering treatment, education and prevention services to help youth become healthy, confident and self-reliant and families to be strong, supportive and loving. While YES accepts insurance, Medicaid and offers a sliding scale, no one is turned away for inability to pay. For more information, visit www.YouthEastsideServices.org.