General reactions you may notice in your child 1
All children differ in how they express worries and fears related to high levels of stress. Nevertheless, an observant parent can discern when their child may be communicating those feelings based on his/her behavior. The following are some general examples of how an overwhelmed child may act:
1) Irritability or difficulty in being calmed and soothed, 2) Tearfulness, sadness, talking about scary ideas or scary feelings, 3) Anger directed toward specific communities or ethnic groups, 4) Fighting with peers, parents, other adults, or not being able to get along, 5) Changes in sleep patterns, nightmares or waking in the night, 6) Wanting to stay close to their parents or refusing to go to school, 7) Physical complaints such as stomachaches, headaches or changes in toileting and eating habits.
Questions children may have when exposed to violence 2
Questions that children have after seeing or learning of violent acts may be questions that adults also have. The difference for young children is that they rarely have the resources to formulate adequate answers. They may have questions such as, “Are we safe?” “Whose fault is it?” “What does this mean to me?” and “How is this going to change my life?” Depending upon the child’s age, as a parent you can ask first what he/she thinks so you can respond to what might be of particular concern to him/her. Be honest with your children even if it means saying you do not know the answer to their question. Above all, assure them that you will do everything possible to keep him/her safe.
Older children may wonder what they can do to assist those affected by acts of violence. Listening to the views of others and volunteering in some capacity can meet this need. Waiting for direction from governmental leaders or charitable organizations to outline steps that can be taken often produces the most effective assistance.
1. Source: National Center for Children Exposed t Violence, Yale Child Study Center. Talking to
kids about terrorism or acts of war. Accessed at www.nccev.org
Speaking to children about violent acts in general 3
Parents can never assume they know what their children are thinking. Asking them what they have seen, heard or experienced is a way to get them talking. Listen carefully to what they say, trying to understand their concerns. They may have made conclusions based on what they have been exposed to (e.g., “Those people deserved to die,” or “God made them die.”) and you may determine if it is necessary to correct their thinking. Answer your child’s questions simply, directly, and honestly. Let your child be the guide in terms of how much information to provide. Do not give them more information than they need. Normally, the younger the child, the less information is needed. Above all, provide your children with reassurance and support no matter how they respond.
Children vary in their response to what they see and hear 4
Children vary in their response to the external world and some may appear disinterested or irritated when there is a focus put on any violent acts that may have occurred. If the act was not experienced personally, they may not feel directly affected by the situation. They may simply be more appropriately concerned with the minor details of their own life. At times, concern may surface, but it may quickly leave from their consciousness as they busy themselves with more important activities (e.g., playing with young children and homework for those older in age). A responsive parent is first and foremost an observant parent. Being available to your child when needed will help them cope with any distress they may experience.
3. Source: National Youth Violence Prevention Resource Center. Responding to Terrorism and War – Information for Parents. Accessed at www.safeyouth.org.
4. Source: National Center for Children Exposed to Violence, Yale Child Study Center. Talking to Kids About Terrorism or Acts of War. Accessed at www.nccev.org
Helping your children feel safe and secure 5
Be prepared to reassure your children that you will do whatever you can to ensure their safety and security. Maintain family routines whenever possible, with regular mealtimes, bedtimes, and other family activities. Children who are fearful may want to stay close to you or want a nightlight. Accommodating your children in small ways will help them feel safe, although some changes may need to be temporary (e.g., sleeping in the same room). Reading books, listening to calm music, playing board games, and engaging in outside activities may soothe your children’s nerves and provide a level of diversion for any upset experienced.
Limiting television and media images of violent acts
Television images are meant to captivate an audience, whether they are of a police chase, war footage or the aftereffects of a terrorist or other violent acts. Additionally, the narration accompanying those images is usually biased in some way. The effects of such images and ideas on children will differ based primarily on their age, personality makeup, and life experiences. Still, one would be hard pressed to cite any benefits that could come by exposing an infant, toddler or preschooler to such scenes.
Generally speaking, young school age children should have their television viewing supervised by an adult, and the television should never be used as a babysitter. The repetition of frightening scenes of war or catastrophic events can be very disturbing to children, especially shortly before bedtime. Parents who watch news events with their children offer themselves the best opportunity to gauge their children’s reaction and to discuss what has been seen and heard. Being available for a frank discussion with your child, whether a first grader or high school senior, allows everyone in the household the opportunity to sort out their thoughts and feelings associated with violent images they have seen.
5. Source: National Youth Violence Prevention Resource Center. Responding to Terrorism and War – Information for Parents. Accessed at www.safeyouth.org.
Caretaker distress and anxiety related to violent acts
Children learn from watching how their parents react to a given situation. Parents need to manage their thoughts and feelings so as to not burden their children with them. Anxiety can be contagious. Children are careful observers and will learn from how their parents act. Your example in dealing effectively with negative emotions and fear and sadness will be the primary source of learning how your child will deal with the same emotions. Calmly discussing how you feel would be appropriate depending on your child’s age and ability to understand.
When family and friends are directly affected by violence 6
Having a personal relationship or knowing someone directly affected by violent acts (e.g., school shooting, terrorism or a catastrophic event) increases the level of anxiety for a household. Not having reliable information will add to the tension. Seeking out accurate news reports and/or other relevant information will help to keep speculation to a minimum and moderate anxiety. Take things a step at a time, try and keep open communication with the person, and offer assistance in whatever way possible.
Sharing fears with children would be natural, but adults must manage those fears and not overwhelm their children. They should not expect their children to act as the source of support. This is a role that should be reserved for the parent. Maintaining routines, such as eating times, bedtimes, and other daily activities, will serve to make life more predictable and stable at a time when a level of confusion may exist.
When additional help might be needed 7
Children who have exhibited emotional difficulties prior to a crisis or who may have recently experienced a loss may have fewer coping skills and may demonstrate a more intense response.
6. Source: National Center for Children Exposed to Violence, Yale Child Study Center. Talking to kids about terrorism or acts of war. Accessed at www.nccev.org
If so, a parent can speak to their child’s school counselor or teacher to ensure they understand the circumstances. Get to know your child’s school counselor and seek guidance from him/her if needed. If a mental health professional is already involved in your child’s care, you will want to speak to him/her. All parents can make use of the insight of those involved in their child’s life, such as teachers, school counselors, athletic coaches, nurses, doctors, and so on. Internet resources are also readily available for parents that have access. Seek advice when you yourself think it would be helpful.
Helping children to understand hate crimes
In 1992, the U.S. Congress defined a hate crime as a crime in which "the defendant's conduct was motivated by hatred, bias, or prejudice, based on the actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or gender identity of another individual or group of individuals." When war or terrorist acts gain the attention of a nation, patriotism and desire for vengeance become aroused in some citizens. At times, these feelings are turned against innocent victims because they belong to a particular subgroup of society. Children who belong to a targeted subgroup may experience fearfulness not unlike that experienced by a child facing a looming natural disaster. A parent should do all they can to demonstrate to their child that they will be there to keep them safe. Speaking to school officials may be necessary, so your child can continue to learn in an environment where such worries are minimized.
Parents with children that are not part of a targeted subgroup can set an example for their children by valuing diversity and tolerance. This will minimize the tendency for some to scapegoat and harass others during times of fear and apprehension related to global events outside of your control. Open discussions with children when viewing news reports of hate crimes will offer the parent the opportunity to instill these values. Should your children hear of reports of such behavior at school, inform them that such behavior is unacceptable and that you intend to inform responsible adults at the school.
Reduce or eliminate physical punishment
Physical punishment is primarily intended to make the child stop the misbehavior, but unfortunately does not teach the child how to behave appropriately. Physical punishment also has the capacity to create anxiety and fear in children, which will interfere in the development of a good relationship with parents. There are other forms of positive discipline available to teach children how to behave responsibly.
Suggested steps to discipline a child.
Keep in mind that changing behavior requires effort and time, and the acceptance that behavioral changes tend to occur in small increments. The following six steps will maximize your chances of modifying your child’s behavior: 1) Pay attention to and always reinforce good behavior; 2) Discipline tends to be more effective if implemented as soon as the misbehavior appears; 3) Select a discipline method that is age-appropriate; 4) Be consistent; 5) Praise the child as soon as the desired behavior starts to appear; 6) Look for opportunities where you can catch the child behaving appropriately.
Common discipline mistakes to avoid.
Do not use too many commands at the same time. This can be confusing, especially for younger children. It is more effective to use one command at a time, so your child understands what is expected from him/her, making it easier and making it easier to comply.
Do not overuse warnings in place of needed discipline. By using too many warnings, the child gets the message there is no consequence for misbehavior and so the undesirable behavior continues. If you warn a child that a consequence will follow due to misbehavior and the misbehavior continues, provide the consequence as stated.
Do not allow your child to ignore your commands. If the parents start to make excuses for non-compliance, the message to the child is that no change is really expected and the misbehavior will continue.
Do not rely on corporal (e.g. physical) punishment as your primary discipline technique. Slapping, hitting, pinching, and spanking rarely produce positive long-term effects. This ineffective discipline method does not teach children any new skills, models violence, fosters resentment in children, and begins the blurring process between abuse and effective discipline.