Give kids an anchor amid the uncertainty

October 11, 2002|By Geoffrey L. Greif and Jesse J. Harris

IN UNSURE and dangerous times, how can a parent reassure a child that the school playground and neighborhood streets are safe?

Thirteen months ago, this question was raised in a most horrific and graphic way. Now, in Maryland, it has been raised again. People of all ages, races and genders are being killed at random. These people were not working in the Pentagon or the World Trade Center. They were following their daily existence in their communities by shopping, filling their car's gas tank and entering school.

What strikes fear into people is unpredictability.

Children learn at different ages that life is uncertain. In the more violent neighborhoods, that message often comes home at a younger age than in neighborhoods where families are more insulated from street violence. But in all communities, people become ill or die in tragic ways all the time.

Grandparents or parents die of disease, car accidents occur or a friend's friend or relative is injured in a boating or hunting accident or while fixing the roof.

Children are also exposed to violence and death while watching television and movies.

We are in a time of community crisis -- schoolchildren in many county schools are being kept inside in classrooms with the blinds drawn, schools have an increased police presence, and after-school sports practices have been suspended. Our children react to this.

Despite the randomness of the violence occurring close to home and the feeling that we are not in control of our own lives, there are certainties in a family's life. Parents need to focus on these certainties to reassure their children.

Communication: Children, regardless of age, need to know that they can talk to their parents, or whoever is in charge of the home, about daily events.

Although peers have a big influence and will serve as a mirror for what a typical reaction might be to these events, the home is where children need to go for reassurance and the chance to sort out, without fear of teasing or rejection, what they are feeling.

Parents should let their children talk to them, and listen in an open and noncritical way, while also providing information about what is known and what is unknown.

Role models: Families have elders who are role models. Particularly for younger children, the reaction of adults in the home to these shootings may set the tone for the child's reaction (teens will often look for people outside of the family as role models but still keep a keen eye on their parents' behavior).

A hysterical reaction by a parent can breed hysteria in a child. At the same time, a lack of reaction or a lack of concern can breed an unnecessarily cavalier attitude or the sense that the child's own concern is abnormal. Parents can admit to their children that they are worried, scared or upset about the shootings while not giving full vent to the extremes of those feelings.

Parents can also closely follow the advice of police in terms of travel in the community and, in that way, model for their children that, as much as possible, they are relying on expert guidance for safety. If a child is becoming too upset from the news, parents can serve as role models by turning off the TV and turning to other activities that will not increase stress (reading, playing games, etc.).

Crisis as opportunity: We all face crises. No family is immune from tragedy or loss. When a family is challenged, its strength can emerge. Many parents found successful ways of helping their children and themselves cope with the events related to 9/11. Even though the children are now a year older, those methods may still work. At this time of crisis, a family should remember how it has coped with past crises and draw upon those experiences as markers of what to do now.

Context of love throughout generations: Perhaps the most important certainly is that families have the capacity to provide love and nurturance to their members across generations. With all the danger in the world, all we can really guarantee is that we will love our children, ourselves and our extended family members and friends. Sharing love with each other is the best way to combat whatever it is we are facing and will face in the future. And that is how a parent can reassure a child.

Geoffrey L. Greif is assistant dean and professor and Jesse J. Harris is dean and professor at the University of Maryland School of Social Work.

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