Information about a crime or tragedy in the neighborhood can spread in seconds with the technology and electronic web of how we share, update, and communicate with each other. The bank robbery today in St. George Utah at Zions National Bank prompted schools to send me automated texts about the imposed lockdown, middle schoolers and high schoolers texting incessantly (at least my girls did :), and little elementary school children asking lots of questions to teachers. My six year-old daughter came home upset and worried per the lockdown of her elementary school. She was full of questions about if she was safe and if the ‘bad guys’ were near our home. Our kids can often be some of the first to hear about tragedy or crime in the neighborhood and community. How we discuss it with them can make a difference in their sense of safety and security. How you talk to your child will depend on what they are feeling, how old they are, and how emotionally mature they are too.
So, how can you as a parent ease your child’s anxiety or fear about a crime or tragedy?
1. Find Out How They Feel
It’s important to ask about what your child has heard. After they share, you can then speak to them based on what they can handle. What they can manage depends on their age and emotional maturity. Keep in mind you are wanting to be honest with them but also not induce undue anxiety either. They likely have fears, doubts, and possibly misinformation based on rumor that may be impacting their feelings.
2. Reassure Them, They Are Safe
When crimes happen or a tragedy occurs, children and teens often wonder if their community or neighborhood is safe. Reassure them with things you know are true about their situation and the area. Acknowledge and validate their feelings, reflecting what you hear they are saying and then help them feel heard and understood.
3. Keep It Simple
Keeping the dialogue simple and to the facts can help alleviate more anxiety from occurring and lessen the chance that you amplify the fearful and/or anxiety ridden thinking they already have. I’d recommend not being to vague or secretive, instead simply be wise and judicious with how much you share.
4. Don’t Mislead Them
Telling your children this is a fluke or that this never happens will only confuse them. Fact is, crimes and tragedies do happen and they heard about it in their small town of St. George. If they ask questions, be tactful and honest with them. Share what you know and only what you know based on what they can handle. If you don’t know, tell them so and reassure them they are safe but that you can get them answers.
5. Keep TV and Media Out-of-View
Often adults are eager to share news and at times unknowingly leave the television or news stories visible to children. Children, depending on age, are easily upset and made anxious, and seeing or hearing media reports can upset and cause undue worry and anxiety. Keep your own media use away from your child as the news content is often not only unhelpful but a catalyst in generating doubt and fear in children as the media outlets prepare news reels and articles for adults not kids.
6. Give Them Hope
If you a part of a faith community, you can reassure them based on your own spiritual and religious beliefs. This comfort can be emotionally and spiritually warming as the child listens and finds hope when hard things like crime and tragedy happen.
7. Listing, Supporting, and Caring
You can lead and engage a supportive and helpful conversation with your child. You can resolve and comfort them with intentional age-appropriate conversation. Remind them they were kept safe, that their world is a safe place and they have resources like parents, teachers, neighbors, law enforcement and others that can and will keep them safe.
Justin Stum is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice in St. George, Utah. As a relationship and emotional wellness expert, he has been treating individuals, teens, and couples for over a decade assisting them in creating and maintaining connected healthy relationships. He can be reached online at www.justinstum.com or by phone at 435.574.9193