By Eitan D. Schwarz MD, FAPA, FAACAP
Recent news stories may raise these questions for children (and grownups, too): How can anyone hurt little children? How can I be sure that this won't happen to me or my parents? Who would do such a thing? Why? Can I do something?
When grownups hear about such an event, they cannot find an easy explanation that will put themselves at ease. Yet, children will also want an explanation from parents and teachers. A complete explanation may not be entirely possible or easy, but we must try. We must find a balance on the one hand between helping a child feel safe and on the other acknowledging the existence of violence, evil, and danger in the world. This must be done in a manner appropriate to the child's ability to understand.
First, don't bring this topic up or discuss it in front of children. Wait for them to ask first. Then look for how distressed the child might actually be. Adjust your response to the child's needs. Don't give more details than necessary.
Second, a parent or teacher should think through their own understanding of what happened, as difficult as that might be. Could it have been anger? Idealism? Human frailty? Fanaticism? Evil? Part of a worldwide struggle between religious fundamentalism and Western secularism? It is important to say that we really don't know the people involved or their circumstances. We only know a few oversimplified images selected by media. This is a chance to discuss with children how to evaluate what they see in the media and how important it is to know a lot more before making judgements. It is also a chance to discuss politics, prejudice, and the use of violence to solve problems or resolve disputes. A discussion of faith and morality can include how evil can coexist with good in this world and how we make our choices. How to respond to the survivors, victims, and families involved on a tangible human level (class projects, etc.) and how we feel about what should happen to the perpetrators are other discussion topics.
Third, in contrast, children can be then helped to remember and identify how much safety there is in their lives, how much they know about their own parents' love and devotion to them. They can review good times, birthdays, Christmases and Thanksgivings. They can be reminded of getting hugs when feeling down, ill or injured. They can be assured that when a parent is angry, it is self-limiting and passes quickly. This is a chance to discuss with children how anger can be a normal feeling and describe appropriate ways of expressing it. With older children who can understand finer distinctions, you can discuss how a healthy relationship is one in which rifts can repaired and healed. Children and families directly involved in such events benefit from individual approaches that include intensive reassurance of safety and nurturing in the short run, and ongoing expert assessment and treatment in the long run.
This is also an opportunity for adults to demonstrate their respect for children by affirming their beliefs that children have rights to affection, nurtur-ance, safety and protection from adults.
If a child continues to be distressed or shows persistent signs of anxiety such as changes in behavior, increased aggression, nightmares, clinginess, headaches, tummy aches, or shyness, poorer concentration, sleep, or appetite, consider an evaluation by a mental health professional who specializes in caring for children. While the majority of children are safe and have loving, there are children who have been hurt by adults or witnessed domestic violence. The approach to them would be more complicated and require professional help.