Lately, it seems that we cannot turn on the news without learning of something violent happening. The victims of violence are all of us: schools, reporters, teachers, pedestrians, restaurants, government agencies. Community violence is something that many of us will experience. Recent research suggests that 39-94% of children will witness an episode of violence in their community at some point in their childhood.
An episode of violence touched my community recently. Many people directly witnessed the violence and its aftermath. Many more members of our community experienced “secondary exposure,” the term researchers use to describe how we can be indirectly influenced by these events. For example, many people saw the newscasts, newspaper articles, and websites.
After the episode, my family shared some tough conversations. All of us took some time to share our feelings and concerns. My spouse and I reminded our sons that they were safe, and we discussed all the things that we do to keep them safe. Because our sons voiced concerns that something like that could happen at their schools, we talked what measures schools take to keep their students safe. We reviewed steps that children can take whenever they don’t feel safe.
A week later, my teenage son wanted to go to a social event at the site of the violence. I asked him how he felt about it, and he said he was ok. However, when he was gone, my 8 year-old son met my gaze and asked, “Mom, do you think there will be shooting there today?” Later he asked his brother, “Did you see any shooters?” When I heard that, my heart dropped. I was so glad my youngest shared his concerns. But, I also grieve the innocence and safety that he lost. It was a good reminder that the secondary effects of trauma take time to get over.
What should a parent remember in the weeks and months after an episode of community violence?
Be patient. Processing violence or trauma takes time.
Children process things differently than adults. It is harder for them to process in the abstract, and so they may need concrete information and proof that things are ok. In an incident that happens in a public place, like a shopping center or a church, it is ok to tell children about times when you went there and it was ok or quiet.
Do not allow your child to avoid public places
If the violence was in a public area, like a church or shopping center, it will be important for your children to revisit the place where the violence occurred and have a positive experience. You may need to start small, and start with other public places, working up to the place that causes fear. You may need to keep your visits short and structured. You may need to plan something positive at the end of your visit so it ends on a good note. Always offer support and encouragement.
Continue to check in with your child
Ask your children how they are feeling and if they are still thinking about the incident. Find balance with talking to them. Don’t ask too much (or they may get more worried), but don’t avoid asking them either. Just check in every so often.
Watch for signs of anxiety
Pay attention to your child if they are avoiding places, people, or activities that they used to enjoy. Notice if they are having separation anxiety. Likewise, if other symptoms, like nightmares, tearfulness, panic, or irritability surface, it may be time to talk to a children’s mental health professional.
Create a sense of safety
Return to normal, predictable routines as soon as possible. Remind them that such events are rare. Point out ways adults make schools, public places, and home safe.
Suggest positive activities and acts of kindness towards others
Examples include: volunteering, donations, cards, etc. Discuss ways to cope with sad feelings and the value of in-person support, talking with family or friends, rather than connecting via media.
Try to find meaning in the event
Nothing can replace the human life that was lost, but finding ways to move forward and offer good things to the world will help. For example, show how good can come from horrible events. Donating or volunteering time to places that benefit children may be helpful for your child. Teach them ways to prevent bullying. By finding ways to increase the safety of all children, your child may also feel safer.
Take care of yourself
Get support with a therapist or psychologist if you feel that you need it as well. This is particularly helpful if you have been through previous trauma in your life. Your child will look to you for cues to manage concerns and stress.
Continue to watch and acknowledge the good in the world
Even with terror and violence, acts of kindness and compassion remain. Help your child to notice these things as well, and also contribute to the world’s positivity.