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The Tragedy at Fort Hood: Helping Your Children Cope

Over the past several years, our children have heard about many events that are probably very frightening to them: 9/11, the sniper shootings in the Washington, D.C., area, war and suicide bombings in the Middle East and, most recently, the shootings at Fort Hood in Texas. According to experts these tragedies can cause very real anxiety in children, even when they are not personally affected by them.

The need to feel safe and protected is a basic need of childhood. And the increased violence that has occurred over the past years doesn't change that need. It only means parents need to work even harder to make sure their children feel safe.

Here are some tips on how parents can help ease their children’s fears.

Q: How do I talk to my children about the Fort Hood shootings?

A: Children around 5 and younger don't need to know about things like this. Wait for them to ask you about what happened. If they never ask, continue business as usual. Older children are likely to approach you with questions. Or you can initiate a conversation by saying: "I know you're hearing and seeing a lot about what's happened at Fort Hood. How does this make you feel?" You don’t need to prepare a big speech trying to explain it all to them. Wait for them to ask you questions, and then answer each question with reassuring information that reflects your family's values and history.

Q: My child seems so frightened that he could get hurt from something like this at his school. How do I reassure him?

A: Tell him: "It's normal to feel frightened. If I was your age, I'd be scared, too. But I'm older than you. I've seen lots of bad things like this happen before, and lived through them. It seems frightening, doesn't it? As if you could be a victim too…I felt that way when I was your age too.” Tell him you will always do everything you can to keep him safe and that if you thought it was dangerous to go somewhere you wouldn't let him go.

Q: Should I let my child watch the news?

A: In this case, definitely limit it. It brings the event, and all of the emotions it engenders, right into your home. And when we sit glued to the news coverage of a shooting it tells our children "this is something Mommy or Daddy are really worried about, so I should probably worry about it, too.” Watch the late news, after the children are in bed.

Q: Are there other things we should or shouldn't do as parents?

A: Keep information factual and accept children’s expressions of anger and frustration. Help them recognize and name the emotions they are feeling. They may need extra attention. However, it also is important to try to keep to a normal routine. Children fare better if life is stable and predictable, helping them keep calm and feel reassured. And be careful about what you say in front of children. Kids pick up on everything and if you are lamenting the terrible state of the world and saying things like "I'm afraid to go anywhere any more," children will start to feel the world is indeed a scary place.

Q: But what if we really do feel like that?

A: You don't have to share all of your feelings with your children. For an analogy to illustrate that: Pretend you're driving a car down an unfamiliar, twisty, turning road in the dark. Should you say to your child: "We're going into some dangerous territory and I'm not sure if I can handle it? I may need you to grab the wheel every once in a while?” No you should not. Children need to be children. They need to know you are sitting confidently in the driver's seat. To continue the analogy, it would be much more loving to say: "It's going to be dark for a while. Here's your blanket. Why don't you snuggle up for a while and I'll wake you when we get there.” Let them know that you are still in control and that, no matter what, you will protect them just as you always have.

Q: How do I explain the kind of people who would do something like this?

A: Go back to your family history. How have you explained bad things in the past? Be consistent and age appropriate. With little children, stay away from phrases like "bad guys" because to them that can mean the bully at school, causing even more fear. Use terms like, "bad things happen sometimes in this world." After age 7 or 8, children may need to have more in-depth explanations. Encourage your child to talk, and listen carefully to her so you can understand her perceptions of the event. Help her identify and label her feelings. Then address each issue in a way that reassures your child and reflects your family values. Avoid being judgmental or generalizing about alleged perpetrators based on race, nationality, religion, place of origin, etc.

Q: What signs should I look for that will tell me my child is having a tough time coping with this tragedy?

A: Until things calm down and the news coverage subsides, it will be normal for children to show signs of worry and fear. Just like many adults, they may have trouble eating or sleeping. Two weeks from now, if your child still isn't eating or sleeping normally, or shows other warning signs such as extreme irritability, weepiness, lethargy and reluctance toward or fear of activities she once enjoyed, call your pediatrician.

see also:

Source: Children’s Hospital of The King’s Daughters, 4/17/07-posted 04/18/2007 on kidsgrowth


As a reminder, this information should not be relied on as medical advice and is not intended to replace the advice of your child’s pediatrician. Please read our full disclaimer.

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