Father and psychologist Kevin Everhart reflects on how we can help our children feel safe in the aftermath of the school massacre in Newtown, Conn.
What can we do to protect our children from the horror, pain and fear that besets us as we grapple with the horrendous reality of the Newtown shootings? As the father of two young children, and as a child psychologist, this question has arisen countless times in the last few days – even from my own lips. There are no easy answers to be found in a compendium of research findings.
There is however, some wisdom to be learned from the fallout of previous tragedies.
Put on a brave face
Ready or not, life demands that we persevere and stand strong for children.
How do we do this? What if we, as parents, feel fearful? I am reminded of something Helen Keller said, “Security is mostly a superstition.” This means that life requires confidence in the face of uncertainty. Sometimes, even when we are fearful, we need to act as if’ we are not afraid. Our children do not have this capacity, so we need to model bravery for them.
Put on a brave face.
With your courage up, be open to your child’s thoughts, feelings and questions. If you stay calm, you create a space where your child can let out what they are keeping inside. Tell them, “I know this is sad and scary, and anytime you want to talk or ask a question, I am here for you.” Be prepared to listen to their questions. When you do, you are likely to hear some seemingly unanswerable ones. At the top of the list of these is the question, “Could this happen at my school?”
What you say in response to this question may vary depending on who you are and the age/maturity level of your child. A response I am comfortable giving to my own children is, “No, it will not happen at your school, because we are learning lessons that will help us keep our schools extra safe.” You can then point out that your school has a buzzer system and other security devices to secure their safety.
Finally, you might want to say, “I know you are safe at your school. If I didn’t think you were I would not let you be there.” In the past, I have typically talked about the rarity of such events. Sadly, given what our city has been through these last few months, that argument does not go as far as it once did.
How to answer the “why” question
Having an explanation for “why” something happened is an important foundation for learning to reassure ourselves in the face of fear and uncertainty.
I typically tell children that there are very few, almost no, people like the man who killed all these children. I say that something terrible went wrong with the brain of the man who did this. Scientists will study what this man did so we can keep it from ever happening again.
Finally, there is a spiritual dimension to addressing an immense tragedy with children. This dimension is often overlooked but may actually be the most essential. There is meaning and transcendence to be found in compassion. Helping children find a way to express feelings of compassion and empathy for victims can support emotional healing. Recognizing that we can and will take care of each other helps us all feel more secure. Making cards, drawing pictures, or writing letters to victims can be cathartic for many children.
Rather than exposing children to news related to pain and suffering, highlight candlelight vigils and the international outpouring of support and caring for the people of Newtown.
After all, having a capacity for compassion is perhaps what makes us truly human. In the face of evil, reaching out to others may be the only antidote.
About Kevin Everhart
Kevin Everhart, Ph.D., clinical child psychologist, is a member of the CU faculty in the Department of Psychology where he teaches child development, developmental psychopathology, theories of personality and cultural diversity. He lives in Denver with his wife and two daughters, who attend school in DPS.