Beyond False Promises of Safety – Helping Kids Cope With the Newtown Shooting

Jodie Kliman, PhD offers ideas For Psychologists, Educators, and Parents of Children in an Unsafe World

As someone with many years of experience with helping children cope with both personal and large-scale catastrophic events, I have been struck by a few things largely missing in the interviews and talking points of many psychologists interviewed by the press since Friday.  I think it would be useful to lay them out, especially for the many of us students and faculty who are directly working with children and adolescents and/or with people who have themselves previously experienced the sudden (especially violent) death of someone close to them.

1) A collective trauma like the tragedy in Newtown is likely to trigger personal experiences of grief for one’s own loved ones, especially loved ones who died suddenly and/or violently—in individual acts of violence, or in war. This is the case for people of all ages, but is especially important to address for children and adolescents who may have already lost family members in untimely and terrible ways, and for any youth living in areas with wide-spread urban violence, as well as for child refugees.

2) Related to this point is the common wisdom among many psychologists that parents, teachers, and other caring adults need to reassure children that they will be kept safe. This safety cannot be guaranteed in inner cities, where the walk home from the school bus or the 7-11 can be fatal. Let’s be more realistic in how we reassure children in such settings—helping children think about how to be safer, rather than absolutely safe.

We can and should give youth a sense of efficacy in self-protection and a sense of an adult protective presence, but false reassurances based on comfortable suburban experience will not be helpful—or believed. My own work in inner cities and with children who have grown up in war zones tells me that children know from very early on that it is not wise to assume that they are safe or that all adults will protect them. This is a terrible fact, and they must be helped to process it and be strengthened to navigate their world as safely as possible.

3) Even some younger children, and many older children in such chronically unsafe conditions recognize that violent and tragic gun deaths in their communities, which happen one by one, rather than 26 at a time as in suburban schools, get less media attention and less compassionate and outraged outcry from the general public.

This is an issue of both race and class. In the 1960’s, when African Americans were being murdered routinely in the South for trying to register to vote or for otherwise standing up for their rights, there was no outcry, and it didn’t hit the news. Civil rights workers determined that the only way to get media attention and therefore social change was for many young white people, college students, to join local African American civil rights worker, and risk their own deaths. Those deaths happened—and the media noticed, for the first time, and that led very quickly to the Voting Rights Act of 1964, signed weeks after the deaths of two white civil rights workers and one African American civil rights worker, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James Chaney.

I raise this point because those of us working with children of color and children of any race in poor and violent communities can help youth who may grieve with all of America for the beautiful lives lost in Newtown—but who at the same time are very understandably angry that the 63 gun deaths in Boston alone last year, most of young people of color, don’t evoke the same grief and outrage across the country. How can we help children (and ourselves) hold the complexity of that simultaneous grief and righteous anger at their own community’s invisible daily tragedy? We can’t avoid this question.

4) We can’t realistically promise safety to children—but we can offer them tools to be proactive, compassionate, voices for the safety of all people. Active mastery is key. Even the youngest children can be asked if they want to draw pictures to send to the children of Newtown—or to the family of the latest murder victim in their own city. Children feel better if they can do something to help others. Children as young as 9 or 10 can be encouraged to write letters—to newspapers, congressmen and women, senators, mayors, governors, and the president, demanding real gun control—not just for the safety of children in schools, but for their safety on the streets and in their own homes. This can make a big difference psychologically, and it makes a good electioneering story for elected officials who go for re-election.

5) And finally, as health professionals, educators, and parents, we need to lobby for change on one of the worst public health crises in our nation, with 30,000 people a year killed and many more injured by guns. We are well-placed to lobby for true gun-control and to ask: why are assault weapons so much easier to access than community-based mental health services, especially for children?


Photo of Banksy’s “No Future” courtesy of Flickr/paul nine-o

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