Psychologically Speaking: Protecting your children

Dear Dr. Batya,

Mynine-year-old daughter returned from her friend's house in tears afterthey were caught checking out "sex" on the Internet. How do you suggestI handle this?

My seven-year-old son watched a video in school about aboy who had experienced a terrorist attack. He repeated what the boyhad said: 'I was on a bus, everything went dark, there was a huge bang,a smell of burning, I saw bodies lying all around me and people weredead.' My son was very upset and left the room. Should first-gradechildren be watching this?

Since earlier columns have addressed both how to talk tochildren about sex and coping with terrorism, I'd like to address thesetwo moms' concerns regarding the media "exposure" the childrenreceived.

As parents you want to protect your children. Yet nomatter how hard you work to try and shelter them, they are likely toinadvertently gain access to inappropriate information before they havethe maturity to understand it.

While researching this column I Googled the word "sex" as thegirls innocently did. Wow - nothing is sacred anymore. No shortage ofclose-up and personal photos and no difficulty in accessing way toomuch information.

Now imagine that you are the parent of the sweetinnocent little boy who was shown videos of children discussing thehorrific carnage after a terrorist attack. How would you respond? Whatdo these scenarios teach us about how our own children feel good aboutthemselves, respect others and value what you believe is important inlife?

Here are a few thoughts: Give your children the tools they needto make informed decisions. As best as you can, try to monitor yourchildren's actions. You can't be everywhere. Often you'll be forced todo damage control. With technology advancing so quickly, your childrenwill have access to a variety of information and opportunities at anincreasingly earlier age. It therefore behooves you, as early aspossible, to give your children the tools they need to make informeddecisions.

For young children this may mean teaching them to ask suchsimple questions as: "What will happen if I do this? What will happenif I don't? What would my mom or dad say if they were here now? Wouldthey be happy, sad or angry with my choice? Do I feel uncomfortableabout what I am going to do? Is what I am doing okay? If I am not sure,I can..."

Use these "negative events" as teaching opportunities. Whileyou might deal differently with these issues than these parents, thesesituations nonetheless provide the opportunity to help your childunderstand realities and learn what is appropriate for them and why.Ask your kids what they think may have happened and what they know.This is an opportunity to hear how they may view their world and clearup any misperceptions. This is the time to let children know that notopics are off limits and you will be there to help them understandwhat they saw, as best as you can.

While you may be uncomfortable with some of these topics, andmight like to just forget about it, this is your opportunity to helpyour children learn what you value, understand why and help themrewrite the script in a healthier way.

Children benefit from feeling safe. As parents, your job is totry to provide your child with a sense of security. While this materialis readily available, many children are frightened by it. Your role asparent is one of education as well as reassurance that all is okay. Aschildren feel good about themselves, it often becomes easier for themto make good personal decisions and reduce their own sense of fear ordiscomfort.

Children need access to age appropriate information that isstraightforward and honest. Kids need to be able to ask questions, getanswers and be heard on a level they can understand. While these twochildren stumbled upon information that was inappropriate, they stillneed information that can reduce their concerns and fears and satisfytheir curiosity.

Set up child-led learning experiences. You and your child mayhave a very different set of expectations, so make sure that youragenda and his match. Make sure that you answer his questions. Somechildren are more interested than others about what is going on aroundthem.

Be aware of information overload and check for signs ofdistress. Both children above were "traumatized" to some degree.Whether it was being caught and being disciplined for one child orhearing upsetting information for another, neither child could walkaway from the situation. A child who is momentarily upset, but forgetsquickly and moves on, differs from one who regresses, has difficultiesin eating, sleeping, socialization, school, etc. for more than a day ortwo. If you feel your child is having difficulty, make sure he or shechats with a professional if you don't feel you can handle it.

Ask yourself if what you are saying is helpful. You want toteach your child your positive values, not transmit your own concerns,fears or anxieties. Deal with yours with a friend, partner orprofessional. There is nothing to be gained in sharing them with youngchildren.

Teach children safe and responsible use of the Internet. Whileclearly the school should not have shown this video, this little boyshowed amazing strength and courage to walk out of the room. Throughdiscussion of what the media is all about, children can learn toquestion what is out there, and choose appropriate material. If a childwould not feel comfortable having you watch with them, chances are theyshouldn't be watching. While you may want your child to grow up withoutany bumps and bruises, think of it as making your kids more resilient.Enjoy even these moments while you can.

The writer is a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in Ra'anana.