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Tuesday, April 17, 2007

How to talk to your children about the Virginia shootings

Whether you want them to know about it or not, children of all ages are hearing about the shootings in Virginia yesterday. Unfortunately, many are getting inaccurate information from unreliable sources like classmates, kids on the bus and friends' older siblings. There is bound to be plenty of embellishment and inaccuracies. Keeping in mind that children are ego-centric by nature, you can bet that the Number One question in any child's mind is: What about me? Am I safe?

Whenever there's a tragic or scary event in the world -- and sadly, we know there have been far too many in recent years; below is a column I wrote after the Columbine shootings that goes through each stage of development -- it's important for children to have their parents' take on it for two reasons: 1. Your own credibility. If they learn they can come for you for truthful, accurate information about this, they are more likely to talk to you truthfully about scary or dangerous things in their own lives; 2. Their emotional health. Children feel safer when they know what we think.

Our job as parents is to convey how awful and sad this is, but also that we think they are safe, that their school is safe, and that you are doing everything you can as their parents to make sure they stay safe. You can even remind them of some of the things you do to keep them safe, including little things like putting on the porch light so no one in the family trips on the steps in the dark. We need to convey this sense of safety even if we don't feel it ourselves.

The best conversation with a child of any age begins with you asking a question: "Have you heard about the shootings in Virginia?" If your child says yes, then follow-up by asking, "Tell me what you heard." That way you are working from her knowledge base. If she says no, tell her, "Well, there were some shootings at a college in Virginia. If you hear about it and you want to talk about it or ask me a question, let me know." That gives them permission to talk to you; some kids shut down when they hear scary things because they don't want to see you upset.

Kids of any age who have a sibling in college are likely to be worried about him/her. Better to bring up the subject in a pro-active way than to let the potential worry fester under the surface: "I've been wondering about the safety on John's campus, have you?" And then remind her what safety precautions there are. Most campuses, for instance, require a magnetic pass to get into a building. Of course, the obvious response is, "Yeah, but this shooter was a student!" Then you can remind her that RAs and college personnel are trained to recognize when students have mental health problems, and to help them get help. Unfortunately, that doesn't seem to have happened at Virginia Tech, and yes, you need to acknowledge that.

For more on the subject, visit the Bright Horizons website, where Jim Greenman has posted some tips for parents. You can also download his book, "What Happened to the World" for free.

THURSDAY, April 22, 1999
By Barbara F. Meltz~, Globe Staff


One of the biggest mistakes we can make as parents in dealing with the Littleton, Colo., murders is to think or hope that our children haven't heard about the tragedy and thus to say nothing. This would send a message that it's unimportant or that we don't care. It also leaves room for children to imagine awful possibilities, including the scariest thought of all: ``This could happen in my school.''

``That's the fear children of all ages have and they all need a chance to get it out,'' says Cornell University psychologist James Garbarino, an authority on the impact of violence on children.

The trick is not to say too much to preschoolers or too little to adolescents.

Preschoolers. Find out what he already knows, says psychologist Diane Levin, a professor at Wheelock College. A good opener: ``There was something on the news about teenagers. Did you hear about it?'' If your child says no, you could say, ``Some teenagers got hurt, but everyone is taken care of now.'' If she says yes, here are some points to make:

- It happened in a place far from here. Children ages 3 to 5 don't have a good grasp of time and distance, so they personalize details, says psychologist Susan Linn of the Judge Baker Children's Center in Boston. Reassure them about their safety: ``Your school is safe.''

- It makes you sad. Sadness may be the only thing that differentiates this event from violence they may see on TV. If we don't talk about our feelings, it increases the likelihood that children become accepting of violence.

- You don't know why it happened. Levin suggests saying, ``People are working to make sure this never happens again.''

School-age. Even if you discussed it yesterday, start a conversation today: ``I`m wondering what you've heard.'' The 6- to 12-year-old's response can be confusing. She may grill you for details, then run out to play. ``It's too threatening for them to stay with the thoughts for long,'' says psychologist Sandra Graham-Bermann of the University of Michigan. Don't push her to talk, but don't be surprised if in a day she's fearful (``Will bad kids come to my school?'') or angry (``Why couldn't adults stop it?'')

- Validate her feelings and share your own: ``I don't blame you for being angry/upset/sad. I am too.'' Letting her vent can be a source of comfort. Let her experience your compassion: ``My heart goes out to those parents.''

- Keep communication open. Answer honestly what you can but feel comfortable saying, ``I don't know. If I hear more, I'll tell you.'' If he's not talking, the third-person may be less threatening: ``I know some kids worry about their school.''

- Find truthful ways to reassure about safety. School vacation this week could cause children to worry either more or less. Some children may not be troubled today, but come Monday, they won't want to go to school. Assume the refusal is related, says Linn of the Judge Baker center. Say, ``I wonder if you're worried about safety. Let's talk to the principal.''

- Distinguish between behavior and dress. Because school-age children think concretely, they may assume that anyone who wears a black raincoat is a bad person. ``They need to hear you say that [wearing unusual clothes] doesn't mean a person is bad,'' Levin says.

Teenagers. Because of his age group's melodramatic impulse, a 17-year-old may say, ``I'm going to carry a weapon from now on'' or ``I'm dropping lacrosse because athletes were targeted.'' Don't get caught up in it, says Garbarino of Cornell University; it's probably masking worry and fear. The more you can tolerate what they say with simple responses (``I know how you feel, this is very scary''), the sooner you can get to the feeling itself. Also:

- If your teen isn't talking, let him know you're always available or that you hope there's another adult he'll talk to.

- Watch TV with her, read the articles she reads, visit the same Web sites. It can be a starting point for a conversation.

- Share your feelings even if he isn't sharing his, including worries about the spread of violence in our society.

- Talk about peers who may be troubled and how to help them.

Garbarino says that teens who are contending with other issues -- parents divorcing, a recent breakup with a girlfriend or boyfriend, a death in the family -- need particular attention.

With any child, he advises, have a family dinner tonight and a moment of silence or a prayer. ``After the initial hunger for information, kids need the chance to be reflective with you.''

Posted by Barbara Meltz at 01:53 PM
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