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Child Abuse Prevention

Guidance for Parents, written by psychologist Myrna Frank, PhD

Many parents will be on their own helping themselves and their children make sense of their feelings in response to this event. Of course, everyone is different and people respond to and process tragedy in many ways. Typically children—and adults—who have past experiences of trauma and loss, or of anxiety tend to be particularly vulnerable. Dr Tamara Shulman, a NJ psychologist, says:

“One thing that parents can do immediately is to limit a child’s exposure if the child is not directly involved. Parents are also anxious and upset—we all are—but keeping the television news on or discussing this at length when a young child is present intensifies the child’s anxiety and experience of danger. Children may not perceive this as a rare event, upsetting but also distant from their own life, if it is replayed constantly in their home. A common distortion is that the event is occurring repeatedly when it is seen repeatedly.”

It is important to reassure children that they are safe, that in this case the police came right away and helped everyone they could help. Kids need reassurance that their parents will come right away if there is any danger. Of course we cannot guarantee safety but parents—and teachers—can help with perspective and responsiveness.

Listen and accept the child’s feelings. It is harder than it sounds to listen when you cannot “fix it”, but really listening is very useful. Follow the child’s level of concern and listen sympathetically.

Dr Shulman also points out that children’s feelings of helplessness are sometimes helped by doing something active, such as making a picture or card to send to the school in Connecticut. This is not meant to minimize this horror at all—only to suggest not overwhelming children who are not directly involved.

Parents can also be alert to changes in sleeping, eating and other behaviors that may suggest a need for professional advice. Separation issues and anxiety symptoms may increase among school age children.

Tragedies like this dramatically affect all of us. The tragedy is senseless, but feelings are not. Listening to children and acknowledging their feelings can be comforting even though we cannot explain or change what has happened. There are no simple answers but there are ways to genuinely help.