(photo credit: Israel Police)
What do we tell our children? How can we help our children cope with an escaped rapist? They talk about it in school, hear it on the news and it has frightened both the young and the young at heart. As responsible parents we want to protect our children and hope that in spite of dealing with our own insecurities and fears, we can make our children's life a little easier.
Children of all ages have fears. Whether it's fear of the dark, going to bed or dealing with strangers who approach them on the street, kids can think of plenty to worry about. Here are a few suggestions for taming the fear and helping your children cope.
1. Talk with your children and listen to what they have to say. Children need to voice their concerns and know you will be there to help. What are their worries and how do they handle them? What makes their fears better or worse? Are they concerned someone will hurt them en route to school or are they suddenly afraid to be home alone? Do they call a buddy, turn on TV or find ways to distract themselves? Your job is to both validate concerns and dispel rumors.
2. Focus on your child's needs. Each child reacts differently and copes differently than adults. "How are you doing?" over a hot chocolate or when you cuddle with them at night may enable them to engage in a conversation that might otherwise be missed. As parents, you provide reassurance that all is okay with their world.
3. Reassure your children that their safety takes top priority. Most children seek reassurance that their world will remain safe and unchanged. Help them feel secure by telling them how to respond should they see a stranger; inform them of the rules regarding opening the door, answering the phone; and assure them that should they feel uncertain or anxious, you are there for them. Some children may be oblivious to their surroundings. Rules may have to be temporarily changed for everyone's comfort. Teenagers may disagree with your evaluation of a potentially dangerous situation and request that you be more permissive. Many adolescents are risk takers, self-absorbed and feel invincible. Ask yourself how comfortable you are with your choices, weigh the pros and cons and reestablish control.
4. Provide age and developmentally appropriate, accurate, honest and truthful information. The impact of events depends on your child's age and stage of emotional development. Children may vacillate between being intensely preoccupied with details and the next minute laughing with a friend. Listen and respond to the question that your child asks. If unsure, have them elaborate or rephrase the question. Choose your words carefully to ensure your message is understood. Acknowledge your concerns. You as a parent can't answer every question. The unknown causes the greatest fear as we often imagine the worst. Children do best with simple and straightforward explanations. Skip unnecessary details.
5. Tell children the truth. Be honest and up-front but don't overwhelm. Voice your uncertainties but substantiate your opinion with facts. Watch out for blanket statements that do more harm than good. As their ultimate educator, what they take away from this will reflect your values.
6. Teach children to be street-smart. Anything suspicious or that makes a child uncomfortable needs an appropriate response. They need to be aware of the person standing next to them, how to walk when alone and when to talk to an adult in authority. These discussions can be casual and natural and not elicit fear. Children can practice through games and role-playing and need to be aware of a good touch, bad touch, violation of personal space and abuse.
7. Enlist your child's help in making the immediate environment safe. A cellphone is no longer a luxury. Make emergency phone numbers easily accessible.
8. Help children feel in control. Keep schedules, play dates and other routines whenever possible. Be flexible and provide freedom with appropriate discipline. Teach children to practice relaxation through breathing, imagery and music and use journal writing to reduce stress and increase control. Watch for changes in behavior. During times of stress, children may experience developmental regression, sleep and eating problems, depressive symptoms, increased fears, physical or somatic complaints, inability to let go of information, being afraid to go outside, sadness, anger, indifference and irritability.
9. Take a break. The best way to cope is to have fun. Limit access to news and be aware of what your children are being exposed to through the media and school. Rent a movie, play games or bake a cake. Looking after your children requires taking care of yourself. Children benefit most when you are in control and are a good role model. If you handle things well, so will they. If you are not coping well, get help immediately. A qualified professional can lighten your burden significantly. Children need someone to whom they can confide their concerns and if it can't be you, find someone to help.
Through our actions, we encourage our children to hope for a better tomorrow and convey our faith that things will improve.
The writer is a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in Ra'anana. firstname.lastname@example.org