How to Help Your Children Feel Secure in a Country Rife with Violence
Robert Schwebel, Ph.D.
The two mass shootings last week are a wakeup call for parents in this country. Shortly after the tragedy, a friend told me that her six-year old daughter asked her about buying a bullet-proof backpack for protection in case a gunman pulled out a weapon at her school. While shopping, I overheard a boy who looked to be about nine or ten telling his mother that he would skip a birthday party at an amusement park because there would be lots of people and they could be a target. Ironically, they were shopping in a Target at the time.
To foster healthy development, children need to feel safe. That’s common sense and basic to any psychology textbook. After working for more than 40 years with adolescents who have drug problems, I can testify to the disabling impact of insecurity and point to the statistics that validate my observation.
The world is not always safe, so it’s important to make our children feel protected and give them a sense of security. We need to tell them that their schools and communities are safe from mass murder and terrorism. “But,” they might argue, “look what just happened in El Paso or Dayton.”
Instead of pushing our children’s feelings under the rug, we should give them an opportunity to talk about them, and then really listen to what they say. We should validate their feelings and let them know we feel sad, too. We should be understanding about their fears and say that we can see why they would be frightened by this terrible news. We can also explain that these events are very, very rare. Although there were two attacks last week, there are thousands and thousands of schools and thousands and thousands of stores and malls. This has only happened in a tiny number of them. That’s why these stories are covered in the news.
We adults need to recognize that statistically we truly are not at risk for being harmed by terrorists or mass murderers, just like we probably won’t be hit by lightning or die in a plane crash. We should continue reassuring our children: “If I thought this could happen to you or to us, I wouldn’t send you to school or take you to the mall. The adults in school are there to protect you and keep you safe. I will keep you safe.”
We can explain the term domestic terrorism: “It’s done by people who are very disturbed, have big problems, and want to scare us. I’m not scared and you don’t need to be scared.”
“Then,” they might ask, “so, why do we have these drills at school?”
“It’s part of keeping you safe,” we can say. “It’s just like we wear seatbelts when we’re in a car, so no one will get hurt. It’s why there are life preservers on boats. Not many sink, but we still take precautions to keep people safe.”
We want to reassure, but also must avoid being naïve. While mass murder and domestic terrorism aren’t as common as it seems, there are other dangers, including unsafe neighborhoods. Just recently, seven people were killed and 52 wounded by gunfire in one weekend in Chicago. When danger exists around us, we must work tirelessly to figure out strategies for keeping our children safe — and helping them to feel protected. Meanwhile, children pay a price: Their lack of security will have a terrible impact on their lives. Parents suffer from realistic fears. This is a tragedy and injustice that we must confront.
This points to another crucial consideration. The most powerful way to overcome fear is by taking action — to do something about whatever frightens us. As parents we can model this for our children. We can show them that we are working for a safer world. This can take the form of political activism and by supporting candidates who convincingly demonstrate their concern for child well-being and safety. We can support candidates who want to stop the endless wars that harm children in other countries, while promoting a culture of violence at home. We can build stronger communities that protect citizens and demand action locally. Plus, we can encourage our children to take action, create safety, and feel empowered instead of scared. We can teach them to be kind to other children and not participate in bullying. These are just some of the ways we can make a safer world.
Terrorism is all about stoking fear. We can’t hide this reality from our children. We can’t shield them from the media, but we can protect them from overindulgence in it. The 24-hour news cycle is problematic. Live coverage of the suffering, interviews with eyewitnesses, moment-by-moment updates about the numbers wounded and dead, and facts about the murderer make compelling TV; more compelling to viewers than talking heads going over and over the events in Washington, D.C. When we leave the TV on all day long, we are just exacerbating the fears of children. Instead, when violence erupts we can watch the lead story and then wait a few hours before we turn the TV on again. Perhaps catch updates in a room where our children are not playing or doing their homework.
I’m writing this on Hiroshima Day, the 74th anniversary of the dropping of the first atomic bomb. I grew up in the 1950s when we were sent to the basement in case of a nuclear attack or told to duck under our desks. I also remember the Cuban missile crisis. I remember my parents saying to me, “Don’t worry you are safe. The good people in this world won’t allow this to happen.” It got me through those tough days. That’s the message we need to deliver now.
Robert Schwebel has been a clinical psychologist specializing in family therapy and substance abuse treatment for over 40 years. In 1991 he developed The Seven Challenges®, an evidence-based counseling program for adolescents and young adults now widely used across the United States. He is the author of several books, including “Guide to a Happier Family,” “Saying No Is Not Enough” and LEAP OF POWER: Take Control of Alcohol, Drugs and Your Life (on sale November 1, 2019).