Creating Safety for Our Children Despite the Proliferation of National Tragedies



Leigh M. Baker, Psy.D.

We are seeing an excess of random violence throughout the world.  Never before have shootings, bombings, poisonings, and targeted assassinations, been so popularized in the media. We go to bed each night and wake up every morning, accosted by stories so horrific that we can only shake our heads and mutter aloud, “what kind of world are we living in?” Our dreams may be less comforting, our awareness heightened, and our sense of well being have been marred under the almost continuous coverage of carnage, mayhem, and tragedy.

The children I see in my playroom, already compromised by depression, anxiety, acrimonious divorces, or trauma, are acutely aware of the danger that exists in the world at large. They see the news, view pictures in magazines, and hear radio announcers reflect the incredible devastation and ensuing damage that occurs when very disturbed individuals wreak havoc in our society.

Children are confused and looking for answers. What do we tell them to make them feel safe when we ourselves don’t feel secure?  How many of us scan the movie theatre’s exit doors as the lights dim and the previews begin? How many of us are hyper-vigilant when we attend concerts, parades, outdoor gatherings, or political rallies? When we drop off our children at school, do we gaze one last time at the door to their classrooms and say a silent prayer to keep them safe?

Our children’s lives are being totally transformed by the proliferation of violence in our culture and the way media has covered these tragedies. Researchers have been studying the impact that our violence-drenched society has on a child’s brain. Most researchers agree that viewing violence does not make a child who is not predisposed to aggression more aggressive. However, exposure to violence does have significant deleterious effects on those children who are predisposed to aggression and violence. The blitz of media coverage that usually follows mass murder imbues a sense of superhero powers to the killers. Young children can often name at least one mass murderer, but they cannot cite the name of one victim. This confuses children and blends the attributes of superheroes and villians.

Explaining these acts of mass violence to children is a daunting task. Whatever we say to our children to give them comfort and security will inevitably be filtered through their own developing lenses.

Preschool children will personify death, believe that death can escape them, and see death as a long journey from which one could return; despite our best attempts to tell them otherwise. The magical thinking that resides within a young child’s brain is both a blessing and a handicap in the aftermath of tragedy.

Magical thinking that leads a child to believe that he or she can escape death will give the child some sense of power and personifying death can aid a preschool child in believing that death can be overcome. While these early beliefs will protect a young child from overwhelming fears, they can create feelings of confusion and anxiety.

Death does not have the same meaning to a young child as it does to the adult mind. We know that death is finite and universal; concepts that the preoperational preschool child cannot comprehend.

School-age children, on the other hand, can begin to grasp some of the more concrete aspects of tragedy. They begin to understand that the dead cannot come back to life; however, they often believe that they can escape death. Therefore, tragedy may happen to other children, but if they are good and smart enough, they may escape horrible events.

Adolescents have a more difficult task of gathering information and assimilating it into their changing views of themselves and the world. Although their brains are not fully developed, they do have the capacity to think more abstractly. Difficult concepts such as eternity, universality, and finality, are beginning to be incorporated into their thinking. For these children, feelings of generalized fear and anxiety, and existential depression, may be more characteristic of their responses to national and international tragedies. Adolescents are less egocentric than their younger counterparts, yet they may still be prone to intense states of hopelessness and a sense of foreshortened future.

One of the most important tasks for parents is to provide their children with a safe, predictable, and loving environment so that they can develop to their maximum potential. But in wake of our mounting national tragedies, how do parents go about doing this?

The following are some things you can establish in your home to help bolster children’s resiliency:

  • Limit and monitor the amount of time your child spends viewing and listening to coverage of tragedy,
  • Be available to your child when watching media exposure of tragedy. Discuss issues as a family and invite your child to express his or her concerns,
  • Provide a healthy balance for your child. Don’t let your child focus too much on the consequences of tragedy. Balance is a key ingredient for children. Plan fun family activites; spend more time doing things together as a family,
  • Encourage your child to discuss with you anything they may have heard from teachers, coaches, or peers concerning national and international tragedies. Many children learn erroneous information about tragic events and it is critical that parents counteract this information with the truth,
  • Teach your children concepts of death and dying that are commensurate with their level of development. Having age-appropriate books available for children are excellent resources for stimulating family discussions,
  • Don’t give children comforting “pat” responses to questions about tragedy.  Tell them the truth in terms of what they can understand. If children are not told the truth, they can sense your deceptions and thus feel more fearful of those things they cannot comprehend,
  • Make your home as safe as possible for your child. Make extra efforts to be consistent, available, comforting, and participatory in your family activities.
  • Children are often black and white thinkers. They may often see things as all good or all bad. However, no matter what the age of the child, it is important to begin to help them make something positive out of adversity. The ability to find meaning in these random acts of violence is the most crucial aspect of healing.

Enable your child to write a letter to a victim, draw a picture to put up in the classroom, start a caring project for the victims, or starting a small money account to support a needy child, are often important ways to show children that they can do something positive in the face of tragedy.

  • Allow children to express their feelings in drawings, puppet plays, and writings. The more your child outwardly expresses fear and anxiety, the less likely your child will internalize these feelings which can lead to further emotional and behavioral problems.

If your child continues to display behavioral and/or emotional problems as a result of exposure to the ever increasing national and international tragedies, you may want to consult with a child psychologist who specializes in children and trauma.

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2 Responses

  1. Richard says:

    Dr. Baker, this article is very helpful in understanding the issues that confront our children in these times of continued national tragedies. My heartfelt thanks for sharing your expertise on this subject.

  2. Judith Keegan LCSW says:

    So many parents are wondering how to explain these tragedies to their children. This article is a great guideline on how to talk our children to ease their fears.

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