Safety Comes From Inside Ourselves

Protecting Emotional Safety After a Terrorist Attack

Written by Irene van der Zande, Kidpower Founder and Executive Director

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Terrorist attacks are a shocking reminder that we are vulnerable, that the physical security of ourselves and those we care about is not guaranteed, and that our world can change in an instant. Although the following article was first written after the terrorist attacks in the US on September 11, 2001, these strategies for creating emotional safety are relevant whenever we become aware of any kind of terrorism or other terrible violence.

For many of us, a terrorist attack, like child abuse, feels more personally horrifying than an illness or natural disaster because it is being done deliberately by people who intend to hurt other people who are innocent. We all grieve for those who were harmed–and for innocent bystanders who might be harmed, while the guilty parties are searched for and found.

Our challenge in the midst of all this is to keep finding our balance. The truth is that in this uncertain world the truest safety we have is the safety we create within ourselves. Feeling hopeless and helpless in the face of terrorism only makes us miserable–and accomplishes the goal of terrorism, which is to create widespread fear and instability.

The truth is that we cannot control everything that happens to us. We have to accept that some things are out of our control, so that we can live our lives to the fullest, while taking care of the things that are under our control.

Most of us, in the weeks and months after a traumatic event, will have the opportunity for conversations about this tragedy both with children and with adults. We can help create safe emotional spaces for the people around us to find healing, perspective, and paths to meaningful action. The most powerful meaning we can make of any tragedy is to work together to create a better world for everyone.

When a major tragedy takes place, most children are likely to either hear or see something through school, the Internet, radio, television, or listening to the adults around them. The waves of reaction that can affect our and our children’s lives are likely to get bigger before they get smaller. While we don’t want to create more fear, we do want to address any concerns that children already have in ways that are age appropriate and empowering.

Here Are Some Actions You Can Take for Your Children and Yourselves:

Get Support for Your Feelings, But Do NOT Process Them With Your Children

Feeling sad, scared, and angry when bad things happen is normal for all of us. However, for their emotional safety, your children need your hope and confidence, not your despair and fear. Be aware that children often overhear adults when they appear not to be listening. Give yourself space to express your feelings with other adults away from children, to nurture yourself, and then to move into positive action.

Get Help If You Are Feeling Anxious or Depressed

No matter what is happening in the world, you have the right to live your own life as joyfully and fully as possible. Talk with family or friends. Go to professional counseling if you need to. You do not have to be alone with your upset, grief, and anxiety about the bad things that happen in our world.

Manage a burst of anxiety by doing the same centering exercise we teach in our classes. Straighten your back. Feel your feet by wiggling your toes. Feel the palms of your hands by pressing them together or against your legs. Relax your elbows and knees. Take a breath and let it out, then another. Listen to the sound your breath makes. Now, look around and focus on a flower or tree, a photo or painting of a happy person or a beautiful place, or the face of someone you love.

In a calm way, give kids space to talk about feelings while focusing on things they CAN do to stay safe. Tell children the same thing we need to remember ourselves, “What happened is scary and very sad. But we are okay and we can keep ourselves safe most of the time, if we know how to do a few things and have a safety plan.”

Create an Opening to Talk About this Tragedy or Any Other Worry Your Child Might Have

Check in with children by asking this “Kidpower magic question” in a calm, interested way,  “Is there anything that you have been wondering or worrying about that you have not told me?” Listen to the answers respectfully without lecturing (or laughing) and say, “Thank you for telling me!”

Talk to Your Child if You Have not Done so Already

For a younger child who you think may hear about this on media or from others, you can explain even big upsetting events by keeping what you say simple, sounding reassuring, and NOT providing or dwelling on details.

Although the following statement was first written about the terrorist attacks in the US on September 11, 2001, it can be adapted for many kinds of terrible tragedies by changing the italicized sentence: “Something sad happened that hurt a lot of people. We are okay, but you might hear about this, and I want you to know what happened. A few people did something very bad. They crashed airplanes into some big buildings and many people died. Now our country and most other countries in the world are making safety plans to help keep this from happening again. Do you have any questions? If you get worried, or start thinking about it a lot, I want you to tell me so we can talk.”

The italicized sentence can be changed to other simple statements of these heartbreaking events.  For example, “They came into a magazine office and shot people because they disagreed with what they were writing about.” Or, “They came into a school and killed many children.”  Or, “They kidnapped many schoolgirls.” Or, “They hurt many families.”

Limit Children’s Exposure to the Media so They Are not Bombarded with Terrifying Images

Consider limiting your own exposure as well. There is a difference between staying informed and traumatizing ourselves unnecessarily. Looking at videos or reading terrible stories over and over can feel as if we are doing something – but dwelling on these images and stories can make us anxious and depressed – without making anyone safer.

Take a Stand Against the Hatred that Gets Born of Fear

Whenever a prejudiced comment is made, you can say something like, “One of the wonderful things about our world is that it’s full of people from all different places, with different shapes, sizes, colors, beliefs and ideas. A few people doing something bad does not mean that everyone who comes from this background is also bad.  In fact, most people, no matter their backgrounds, are GOOD.”

Make distinctions based on actual behavior rather than assuming that people who share some characteristics are also likely to support violence.

Seek whatever form of spiritual guidance works for you.

Focus on what You CAN Do

Both children and adults have the power to make a difference through daily actions. By working together as a community, your actions can create change.

Viktor Frankl was a psychotherapist who was imprisoned in concentration camps in World War II. In that hopeless terrifying setting, he came to the conclusion that, while he could not control most outside events, he could choose how he would respond to those events. He responded with compassion to those harmed by the violence around him, causing even the prison guards to come to him for guidance. He created a form of psychotherapy called Logotherapy, which helps people heal by making meaning of their lives.

Most often, we can take charge of our safety. When things are out of our control, it is important to remember that, like Viktor Frankl, we can still choose to create safety inside ourselves and to extend compassion to others.



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About the Author

Irene van der Zande, Kidpower Founder and Executive Director
Kidpower Founder and Executive Irene van der Zande is a master at teaching safety through stories and practices and at inspiring others to do the same. Her child protection and personal safety expertise has been featured by USA Today, CNN, Today Moms, the LA Times, and The Wall Street Journal. Publications include: Bullying: What Adults Need to Know and Do to Keep Kids Safe, the Kidpower Safety Comics series, the Relationship Safety Skills Handbook for Teens and Adults, and The Kidpower Book for Caring Adults: Personal Safety, Self-Protection, Confidence, and Advocacy for Young People.
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