Counselors advise talking to your kids now

April 22, 1999|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,SUN STAFF

By midmorning yesterday, Rowland Savage was deluged with anxious callers posing an identical question: What do we tell the kids?

Savage, counseling coordinator for Baltimore County public schools and a specialist in dealing with the emotional fallout of traumas like the shootings in Littleton, Colo., had a firm reply: Talk to them. Now.

"If you don't talk, your silence is interpreted as your inability to make sense out of something that is very frightening," said Savage. "You talk. And the first you give them is perspective."

As images of the Columbine High School massacre flashed across TV screens nationwide yesterday, millions of children were thrust into front-row seats to witness a real-life horror show. How should adults help children understand this overwhelming event? How much is too much information? When is it time to turn off the TV?

To answer these concerns, The Sun polled five authorities on child behavior and violence. In addition to Savage, they were Mark D. Weist, child psychologist with the University of Maryland School of Medicine; Dr. Susan Villani, child psychiatrist with Sheppard Pratt Hospital; Margarete I. Parrish, assistant professor at UM's School of Social Work; and Paramjit T. Joshi, child psychiatrist and director of the Johns Hopkins Children's Center's Office for the Prevention of Violence.

All strongly agreed that parents should look for any opportunity to talk to their children about what happened.

"Kids are curious, and they need to get a response that helps to demystify," said Parrish. "Generally, the more you can communicate, the better."

Sun: What should a parent say?

Parrish: It's going to vary by the child. The most important thing is that parents must answer the questions children ask. You need to help a child understand the fact this was far outside the norm.

Joshi: Acknowledge this was a frightening, horrific event and should never happen. The second is to help our kids feel better. You want to reassure them, but not minimize how they're feeling.

Villani: Most children need reassurance that adults are taking this seriously and everyone is looking for ways to prevent this from happening again.

What do you do if your child becomes fearful of going to school?

Joshi: It's a normal reaction, particularly in young children. They've heard that people got killed in a school. Why are they going to school? Preschoolers especially may not have a good concept of that. You should say you understand how they feel. Let the child tell you what he or she is really feeling and then talk about how your school is going to really make sure that it's safe.

Should I let my child watch TV news reports?

Weist: It depends on the age. Some of the coverage is very inappropriate for young children. In general, I don't think young children should be exposed to images of people who have been shot or adolescents screaming and crying hysterically.

Villani: I'd limit it. It can be desensitizing just as all media violence can be desensitizing. If they do watch, you should be there talking to them about it and answering questions.

Should the children be talking about this incident at school?

Weist: The school staff needs to follow the leads of kids. If the kids are talking about this, time should be made to talk about it.

Joshi: Yes, it's an issue for school. All the kids are probably talking about it. If they see adults are appropriately concerned and trying to create a safe environment, they'll be reassured.

Villani: To not talk about it would be artificial, but talking too much could be harmful. It shouldn't take over the school day.

Savage: A good teacher uses world events as a teachable moment and this is one of those times.

What if my child seems uninterested?

Parrish: A lot depends on the child's age and development level and their coping style. It's not necessarily pathological. It may be their way of not becoming more scared than they know how to tolerate. You have to know your kids.

Villani: Children deal with grief in different ways. Maybe they need to talk about it at a later time.

Savage: Children have their own way of dealing with anxiety. One way to cope is to shut down. You just need to be an inviting parent -- tell them they're welcome to ask you about it.

What about parents who now feel anxious about sending their child to school?

Weist: Probably the best way to manage anxiety is to get involved with the school, know the teachers and administrators, and find out what their plans are to address violence among the students.

Villani: It's important that they not overly dramatize that with the children so that they heighten a child's fear. It's healthy to have some reluctance and concern. We all feel that way after an airplane crash and we have to fly. This is not that different.

Pub Date: 4/22/99

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