Mass Shootings and Terror Attacks on Kids: Advice for Panicked Parents

On November 14, a horrific shooting spree by a madman in northern California wounded a child hiding under a desk in an elementary school and another while being driven by his mom to school, as well as terrorized many other youngsters taking cover from the bullet spray. This latest tragedy involving children occurred on the heels of the mass shooting November 5 at a Texas church where half of the victims killed were children, and the October 31 terror attack in New York City injuring two children in a school bus. Understandably, many parents are panicked.

Some mothers of young children have even told me that they want to keep their children home from school, and parents of adolescents are telling their children they can’t go to concerts and clubs, since those places have been targets.

I heard the same agony from parents I counseled after the horrific mass shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary school in December 2012, when a 20-year old shooter murdered 20 children between six and seven years old.

Such feelings are normal, but it’s urgent to deal with a wide range of emotions to prevent such tragic events from eroding your own – and your child’s -- life.

Here are some helpful steps: • Confront your own feelings. When children are injured or killed in attacks while going about their normal life, people naturally feel a tragedy even more strongly. Don’t expose children to your own fears. Resist saying “Be safe” every time they go out the door, or telling them to check in with you constantly while they are out. Such hyper-vigilance only heightens their own fears and insecurity. Process your feelings with adult partners and peers to avoid spilling them out on youth. Adult partners should especially accept any differences in their way of coping to prevent arguments that upset children.

· Find out what children know. Since children can be exposed to news about such attacks through social media or from schoolmates, prevent them from spreading myths and fears by talking to them about the events. First ask, “What did you hear about this terrible event?” to find out what they know. Then be straightforward about what happened and ask about feelings they have. Talk calmly. Be sure to add, “Please talk to me if you have any questions or worries.”

· Reassure children about being safe. Say that you will do everything in your power to insure that nothing happens to them, or to you. Children can develop “school phobia” – refusal to go to school – out of fear that something tragic will happen to them or to their parents if they leave home. Developmental psychology indicates this is the time to give extra comfort and confidence. Be age-appropriate. For youngsters, give more hugs, read happy-ending bedtime stories, and encourage cuddling soft toys. Reassure teens – who are at the stage of being concerned about control -- that you trust their ability to make wise decisions about what they do and where they go.

• Direct anger where it belongs. Parents’ distress and worries about their children can negatively affect their reactions, causing you to blow up at minor transgressions like not doing homework or putting clothes away. Take your anger out at the perpetrators of the attacks to avoid the typical psychological tendency to project aggression at innocent others at home or work. Uncover associations to any painful past experiences since publicized attacks can trigger repressed memories of times you were a victim or mistreated, even decades ago. Get angry appropriately at those who have hurt you.

· Pay attention to children’s behavior. When kids are upset and don’t express feelings verbally, bottled emotions manifest in behavior changes in one extreme or the other. They may become more withdrawn or more active. The might sleep or eat more or less than usual. They might also become more aggressive towards parents, peers, or teachers. encourage them to talk about feelings underlying these behaviors. Seek professional help if the actions are extreme, or last more than several weeks.

• Protect children from prejudices and xenophobia. Profiles of perpetrators can trigger negative feelings that generalize to groups of people. Face your own tendency to do that. Educate yourself and your children about shooters and terrorists and why people become violent. Since it is common to call such killers “crazy people,” talk about this term and tell children that not all people who have mental problems are violent. Since terrorists have been identified as Islamic religious extremists, be sure to let your children know that Muslims are peace-loving kind people. Explain that evil does exist but that the world is full of good people.

• Adjust to the “new normal.” Be straightforward with kids that life can seem no longer “normal” since “new” targets of attackers are “soft” -- meaning real adults and children rather than buildings or American symbols like the Twin Towers -- and since attacks happen in the course of daily life, like at church, school or just walking in the street. Yet emphasize that they still have to go about their normal life. Be honest that there is no absolute safety or perfect protection; anyone can simply be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Learn about yourselves by scoring where you are on the psychological measure of “locus of control” -- whether you think you are in complete control of what happens or whether everything is up to fate; the best answer is in the middle, that you do what you can, but accept that destiny also plays a role. Remind kids of the wise advice of officials, to “Be vigilant” and “If you see something, say something,” but also tell them to take breaks from being constantly “on guard,” to prevent stress. Reassure them that other adults are looking out for them, for example, authorities have averted some threats.

• Get active. Action reduces anxiety and increases a sense of control. Encourage kids to ask their teachers to talk about why people are violent and how to deal with it in school. Take kids to memorials to share emotions with others and feel supported by a strong community. Take action yourself, speaking to school officials, and putting pressure on congressional leaders to prioritize public safety and on social media companies to prevent abuse of technology that encourages violence. • Talk about the meaning of life. Tell kids that it’s normal to question what life is all about or to wonder whether there is a God if bad things happen to good people, but they should not lose faith. Embolden them that violent perpetrators don’t win when you stay happy and get on with your daily life at school or church. Tell them the story that after an attack in New York City, children and adults celebrated Halloween and enjoyed the city’s weekend marathon. Teach kids an important lesson about what it means to be resilient: when you’re knocked down, get back up. Violence by others is tragic but not a reason to give up on life, hope and believing in others.

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