In the aftermath of this week’s shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, parents are still reeling with concern about how to help their children (of any age) deal with the trauma of either seeing, hearing, or worrying about horrific things happening to them or their friends.
There are some very concrete steps that every parent can take to help children of all ages — and as a pediatrician of more than 30 years (and a mother and grandmother), I share these six steps here for all readers.
First, give comfort and empathy to any child who is frightened. What makes kids of all ages feel more fearful is not having their feelings acknowledged or validated. If your daughter reacts to the news of the school shooting with fear, tell her you understand her fear. Don’t dismiss it and tell her that she has nothing to worry about because her school is safe. Let her know that you fully understand her feelings.
When children experience an adult — particularly a parent — who dismisses their feelings, the children come to believe that their feelings are off-base. In their eyes, the parent is more correct — so they learn to not trust their own feelings.
And when they can’t learn to trust their feelings as being appropriate, they learn to hide them rather than process them. This can lead to serious emotional trouble in later years.
Second, help the frightened child talk through his or her fears completely. If a child saw trauma and needs to talk about it explicitly, he or she needs to be able to do this. If it is too tough for you to hear or you feel unable to adequately help the child, find him a good counselor.
If your child witnessed trauma, he most likely will need the help of a seasoned counselor in order to reduce post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Most parents who have children who didn’t witness trauma but who heard about it are equipped to help their kids. Listen to their fears — and then follow up with questions like, “If that happened, then what else would happen?” or “How would that make you feel?” or “What would you worry about most?”
In other words, repeat back to your child what you heard (this lets him know you are really paying attention), and then ask him to follow through with a worst-case scenario. This is hard, but parents really can do it.
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Also, if your child doesn’t want to talk about specifics of an incident, don’t push. Children who have seen trauma can feel retraumatized if they are pushed to talk about it, so be very sensitive to your child’s needs. Let him know you are always available to talk or listen at any time if or when he wants to talk.
Third, take adult measures to do what you can to ensure the safety of your child. Many traumatized children and teens will have nightmares or worry about being safe. Knowing that you, as an adult, take their safety seriously goes a long way in reducing their fears and/or nightmares.
Lobby for better security at their school; put dead-bolt locks on your doors. Let your child know that you take your job as protector of him or her seriously. Children, even teens, feel helpless when they are frightened — and kids need to look to adults for help.
So give your teen whatever assurances you can that you are taking measures to ensure their safety. Then do it.
Fourth, be patient with your child. Children who are afraid or traumatized need time to work through their fears. The children who witness their peers being shot or injured will never be the same. But they can emerge from their trauma with an inner strength if they are adequately helped.
Others who hear about the incident may feel afraid, and their fears will take weeks or months to dissipate. So don’t expect your teen to feel better right away. The cold-blooded killing of innocent children and teachers shakes everyone to the core — and every person needs time to heal from the news.
Fifth, minimize sensationalization of the hurt. News agencies (particularly TV) will re-air the trauma ad nauseum. This is due in part to their desire to educate their audience; and it also helps many listeners process the shock of what happened.
But hearing about a trauma repeatedly can be harmful to children, so protect your child from reviewing it over and over. If your child has a phone, talk to him or her about getting off social media for 24 hours, and turn the television news station in your home off for 24 hours. Tell your teens or children why you are recommending this so that they don’t feel that you are simply avoiding the issue — but rather that you are intentionally helping them cope in a healthy manner.
Giving children and teens access to God gives them a huge sense of security.
And six, teach your kids to pray. Giving children and teens access to God gives them a huge sense of security. Just because our culture doesn’t want Him in our schools doesn’t mean that you, as a parent, shouldn’t teach your kids to pray when tragedy strikes.
Giving your kids something to do and an omniscient God to grab onto when life gets really tough will make a tremendous difference in their ability to overcome fear.
Dr. Meg Meeker has practiced pediatrics and adolescent medicine for more than 30 years. She is the author of the book “Hero: Being the Strong Father Your Children Need” (Regnery Publishing, May 2017), along with a number of digital parenting resources and online courses, including The 12 Principles of Raising Great Kids.