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The anti-Semitic massacre at a Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania synagogue Saturday that claimed 11 lives. Nine sick children dying from infection at a Passaic County health facility. A blaze in Dover that left 80 people homeless and destroyed six businesses. Back-to-back hurricanes that decimated communities in the Southeast. Mail bombs.
The onslaught of bad news is not only causing angst in adults, it’s affecting children — even young ones. That feeling of helplessness can be magnified in kids, but parents have the power to help reduce the impact of trauma their kids are exposed to or actually experience.
“Children on the whole are resilient when they feel loved and cared for,” said Mary Vineis, NewBridge Services Director of Community Response and Education and coordinator of the Morris County Traumatic Loss Coalition. “One of the most important things parents can do is to assure their kids that they will keep them safe.”
Parents should process an event before speaking to their children about it so they can role-model coping skills, Vineis said. “If you tell your child ‘everything is OK’ but your behavior expresses fear and powerlessness, your child will pick up on that,” she said.
Keep it Simple
It’s best to start a conversation by asking a child what he’s heard. (Hopefully the parent will be the first to inform her child.) “Encourage them to ask questions, listen for their fears and concerns, and gently correct any misinformation they have,” Vineis said. Keep the explanation simple, especially for little children. More specifics can be provided to older children, but it will take them time to process the information, and may lead to follow-up questions.
Limit Media Exposure
NewBridge Chief Operating Officer Michelle Borden, a licensed clinical social worker, urged parents to limit their child’s media exposure; television news often shows graphic images repeatedly, which can be very disturbing. Borden suggested parents screen news accounts first, whether they’re on television, in print or online. “That gives you more control about what your child is exposed to,” Vineis said.
“Let your child know that it is normal to feel upset about what happened,” Borden said. Parents should also express empathy for the people affected and talk about the heroes, including first-responders, who helped save lives.
Parents should reassure their children that they are safe and the risk of such events happening to the family is very low, Borden said. Many families find solace in taking action such as donating money to a cause or volunteering, or participating in a community vigil.
Expect that children may very well show signs of stress. They may be irritable, have trouble sleeping, and change their eating habits, but those reactions should subside within two or three weeks. “Give your children extra patience, care and love,” she said.
If those behaviors don’t subside or if they appear weeks after the event, parents should seek professional help. Call NewBridge at 973-366-9333 or visit NewBridge.org.
Here are some age-specific tips from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration:
Preschool children, through age 5:
Children ages 6 to 19:
The National Child Traumatic Stress Network provides tips on how to talk to children about hate crimes and anti-Semitism.
NewBridge Services, a 501c(3) nonprofit, is a premier provider of counseling services, housing and educational programs in northern New Jersey serving more than 8,000 adults and seniors last year alone. NewBridge treats mental illnesses and addictions; teaches skills for coping with stress, grief and challenging relationships; builds and manages affordable housing; offers school-based programs that teach children and adolescents resiliency skills for healthy emotional development; helps young adults succeed in their education and prepare for careers; and supports seniors so they can remain independent. Throughout its more than 55-year history, NewBridge has remained true to its mission of bringing balance to people’s lives by tracking shifts in communities’ needs and providing innovative, effective programs to meet them.