Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?

Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?
Alternative Psychotherapies: Evaluating Unconventional Mental Health Treatments

Monday, July 23, 2012

The Colorado Shootings and Young Children


Some years ago, it used to be possible to keep news of disasters from young children. If they couldn’t read, they could remain unaware of newspaper headlines, and even TV news was much less graphic than it is today. Children might overhear adults talking and realize something had happened, but they were not exposed to every detail, unless they themselves were present at the event.

The recent shootings in Colorado remind us that today it’s much more difficult to protect young children from frightening awareness of terrible events. Excited news reports are seen and heard on the radio, on the computer screen, on television in the home and in public places (where it can’t be turned off or avoided). Tweets can keep parents constantly aware of ongoing situations which they find difficult to ignore.

If your child is with you when news of disaster comes, your very nearness creates a feeling of safety and security that can help override the impact of the event. But what if the child doesn’t seem to feel safe—or what if you are a friend, a relative, or a teacher or day care provider with temporary responsibility for the child?

A handout provided by Dr. Gerard Costa of Montclair State University gives some outstanding guidance for adults trying to help young children cope with frightening news.  I’m going to quote some of his suggestions directly and then add a few comments to each.

“1. Ask children what they know and have heard. Correct the accounts and give permission for many different feelings: scared, angry, worried, etc. Monitor your own emotion and tone of voice.”

  • Of course, what you ask or tell depends on the child’s age. Some may know no more than that someone got hurt, and they don’t need to know more than that, or to be corrected by being given additional information. If they are really mistaken, and if the mistake is an additionally frightening one--  for example, that a building fell down by itself (so the building the child is in could do the same), a correction is helpful. As to how they are feeling, the youngest children may have very little vocabulary to describe this, but they may be able to tell you what they want to do--  stay close, sit on your lap, have a story, perhaps.  Although adults will feel distressed, they need to try to be calm and to pay attention to how they sound or look to the children.
“2. It is okay, even important, for children to know that the adults in their lives have the same feelings when bad things happen: sadness, fear, worry, anger. Let children know you feel these things and that you are there for them. It is important, however, that you remain in control. If your own reaction is difficult to manage, enlist another adult to help you with the children.”

  • It can be very helpful to have another adult present to help. What can be hard, though, is for both adults to concentrate on the children’s needs rather than talking to each other. People who have worked closely together and thought about or practiced what to do ahead of time are probably more likely to be able to resist the temptation to turn to each other, which might be harder for adults who don’t know each other well and find themselves together entirely because of a catastrophe. For teachers and caregivers, occasionally practicing a “psychological disaster drill” might be helpful when the real thing happens.

“3. Limit repeated exposure to images and reports of the events. Follow the child’s lead, talk about what happened, be reassuring about the ways that you, the adults, will take care of them. Turn the TV off, read a book, interact in play, talk. Typical and normal routines are comforting and   reassuring to children.”

  • This excellent advice goes directly against the impulses of the adults, who feel as if they are safer when they know more about something, and would like to be glued to the news even though the same scenes are being shown over and over. When a disaster occurs, adults tend to lose their appetites, forget about meals, and be unable to sleep, abandoning the routines that are so important to young children’s sense of security. Adults who are responsible for children need to recognize the difference between their adult motives and those of young children, and consciously choose to do what the children need.

“4. At each developmental period, the availability and empathic response of a caring, familiar, adult begins the process of remediation.”

  • Although preschoolers and young school-age children may appear extremely independent when all is going smoothly, they are as much in need of adult support in times of fear as infants and toddlers are. But preschoolers and kindergarteners are much more likely than babies to find themselves with an adult who is not very familiar when news of frightening events comes. They are likely to be cared for or go to school in larger groups and therefore have less opportunity to develop relationships with caregiving adults. This does not mean that there is no help for them--  even a completely unfamiliar adult can provide stability and some comfort by staying near and being attentive to children’s signals. A familiar person can do this much more easily, but anyone who behaves appropriately can be a big help.
“5. When children do see images or reports of tragedies, Fred Rogers suggests that we help them ‘look for all the people who are helping’. Couple the sad tragedy with the comforting presence of others who are helping and taking care of others.”

  • Young children’s natural interest in firefighters, police, and medical personnel can help to turn worrisome news about an event into a familiar discussion. (“Mr. Rogers” knew a thing or two about how young children operate.)
“6. If the status of a child’s parent or relative is unknown, reassure the child that you will stay with him/her  and that you will be sure to contact someone they know who can come to be with them.”

  • Although an actual reunion with the missing person is the only thing that will really give the child peace of mind, it’s important that they be helped to know they are not alone. Remember that young children are often still functioning with a “desire psychology” in which they believe that whatever people do, it’s because they want to do it. Especially in stressful situations, they are likely to think in that way and to believe that Daddy isn’t picking them up because he doesn’t want to, not because he is hurt or because he doesn’t know where they are. They need to know that you, the adult, want to be with them and will be there.
To conclude with an essential message from Gerry Costa’s handout:
“While we as adults may feel unsure of the possibility of future tragedies, uncertainty is the province of adulthood. We must always let children know that we will take care of them and protect them.”

[And how about giving children that assurance by demanding that the two presidential candidates state how they propose to regulate not only guns but ammunition purchase?]

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