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Listening to children helps to create a circle of safety after a tragedy

Kids as young as six have asked us, with their adults at their side, “What if someone starts shooting people here?”

We answer them, so the adult and child both experience a response that is confident and not fearful. At the same time, we are heartbroken that ANY child ever has to wonder about this.

No matter how we feel inside, our job as adult leaders is to speak and act in ways that help our kids rather than scaring them. How we respond to each tragedy can affect their long-term resilience and world view.

Here are three actions we can take to protect the emotional safety of our kids immediately after a tragic shooting:

1. Shield children from intense reports from media including radio, podcasts, TV, online stories, newspapers, social media – as well as from people around them. Seeing and hearing upsetting details is traumatizing for people at any age, especially when we are bombarded with terrifying images over and over.

This means: Turn off the news.  Unless an immediate emergency threatens the safety of your loved ones and having accurate updates will inform your safety decisions in the moment, getting the news can wait.

This means: Interrupt friends, colleagues, parents, teachers, or others who start to express their feelings about what happened when children are around by saying, “Excuse me. Let’s make a different time to talk about this.” Then, change the subject.

This means: Think carefully before bringing children to memorials and vigils where adults are actively grieving. For children who are very aware of what happened and feel sad, you can help them express their feelings through listening to them, encouraging them to make drawings about their feelings, and telling hopeful stories about dealing with different kinds of loss.

2. Answer questions in hopeful, age-appropriate ways.

This means: Rather than giving scary details about this tragedy, find out what your child has heard, listen to any concerns, and then provide just the information that your child needs to feel safe. For younger children, keep it very simple: “This almost never happens. The person who did this won’t be able to do it again. We are all working together to make sure your school is safe.”

This means: Don’t make untrue statements and promises you can’t keep, like, “This will never happen here!” Instead, provide reassuring explanations and realistic promises, “Even though we keep hearing about this in the news, this is very rare. Lots of good people are working hard to make it even less likely to happen. And I will do everything in my power to keep you safe and to teach you how to keep yourself safe!”

This means: Rather than imposing your own ideas, encourage older kids and teens tell you their ideas about what we each can do to show we care and to make our world a safer place for everyone.

3. Give extra love and attention.

This means: Raise the issue if you think your child has heard about this tragedy and watch for signals that your child might be worrying and not telling you. Remember that kids, like many adults, often do not express upset feelings directly and might become irritable, whiny, clingy, or demanding instead.

This means: Spend extra time with your kids, having fun being together, listening to what they tell you, noticing any changes in behavior, and giving extra reassurance about any kind of worries, no matter how small. Seek professional help if your child becomes stuck in anxiety about what happened.

And finally, we can join with other caring adults to work together to take social action that can help to prevent this kind of violence in the future! Our theme for International Child Protection Month this September is Creating Circles of Safety in Our Troubled World. Here are this week’s FREE featured resources to enable you to take actions that can help take charge of safety for yourself and your loved ones.

1. Helping Children Regain Their Emotional Safety After a Tragedy
2. Tragic Shootings: Kidpower Answers to Common Questions About How To Be Safe
3. Mass Shootings: Kidpower Safety Tips for Individuals and Families

Please share this article and these resources with friends, family, and colleagues as part of helping make our world a safer place.

Visit our International Child Protection Month web page to discover more free resources to support you in creating circles of safety in your life.

And please let us know if there are any other ways that Kidpower can be of help.

In case you missed it, here is our post from last week: Our Kids Need Our Hope, NOT Our Despair.


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Published: September 19, 2019   |   Last Updated: September 19, 2019

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: cartoon-illustrated Kidpower Safety Comics and Kidpower Teaching Books curriculum; Bullying: What Adults Need to Know and Do to Keep Kids Safe; the Relationship Safety Skills Handbook for Teens and Adults; Earliest Teachable Moment: Personal Safety for Babies, Toddlers, and Preschoolers; The Kidpower Book for Caring Adults: Personal Safety, Self-Protection, Confidence, and Advocacy for Young People, and the Amazon Best Seller Doing Right by Our Kids: Protecting Child Safety at All Levels.