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Helping Your Kids Feel Safe

QUESTION: With school violence becoming an all-too-regular part of the nightly news, my 11 year old is afraid to go to school -- and I am scared to send her. I do not know what to say to help her deal with this senseless violence. How can I help her deal with her fears?

ANSWER: It is natural for your daughter to want to stay home with you at a time when her sense of safety has been shattered. Children can experience post traumatic stress from identification with the students who endured the violence. And you, too, experience empathy and shock for the parents whose children are direct victims.

Staying physically close to you may be your daughter's way of coping. Your presence alone is immediately soothing, and can help her to recover her sense of security. Use the following guidelines and discussion to help you and your daughter find the path towards recovery.

Expression is the first step toward recovery. Establish a safe environment for talking about feelings. Show your willingness to talk with your child about her feelings, but do not force her to talk. She will express herself when she is ready. Let her know you, too, are stunned and saddened. Answer her questions honestly, but do not try to explain anything you cannot understand yourself. Refrain from giving false promises, "This can never happen to you," but do convey a sense that you believe this tragedy will cause people everywhere to actively search for needed answers.

The second step in the recovery process includes being able to address or actively respond to the traumatic event. Being witness to a crime is traumatic because the witness was helpless to stop the crime. In a true sense, we are all witnesses to this tragedy, and as such need to actively respond to heal. Let her know you are deeply concerned, and will be talking with other parents and teachers about safety at her school.

Make time to consult with teachers, administrators and other parents about addressing school violence. Teachers are well aware that students use poetry and writing assignments to work through traumatic life processes. Art, drama and music projects, as well as community gardens, have been utilized to recover from crisis. Telling your story (feelings, perceptions) to peers and teachers who are also working through this trauma is deeply therapeutic for both you and your child.

Connecting with others allows us to express the shock, pain and grief rather than repress it. Children who do repress fear or grief initially, may experience delayed stress symptoms later. A pattern of sleeplessness, anxiety, nightmares, or even depression may result if overwhelming feelings have no opportunity to be released. Encourage your child's physical, creative and artistic avenues of expression at this time.

Signs of stress can include regressions to earlier behavioral patterns, such as clinging to your side, or the reverse, retreating from contact, depending on the child. Encourage your child to maintain a routine schedule, but remain connected and interested in talking about what is being discussed in the classroom. Encourage these discussions and stay in touch with your child's school experience.

Expect your child to respond to news of school violence in his or her own way. Younger children will be more focused on safety alone. Older children in junior high and high school may come home debating interpretations of nonconformity and individualism. Girls may reach out more, while boys may tend towards keeping more of their feelings inside. While we adults will need to grapple with the absence of government programs that provide schools with the therapeutic educational and family support services required to address the violence happening in our schools. Our schools are, after all, a microcosm of our society.

Although I have repeated this advice in my column, many times, it bears saying again. Research on child development and prevention of criminal behavior point to a child's need for one caring adult to consistently believe in, and be committed to, their best interests. All children need a mentor. This adult can be a parent, an aunt, an uncle, a grandfather, or a teacher. There is no one family constellation that guarantees that a child will experience a quality, caring relationship with an adult. And single parents can and do provide such quality at the same rate as two parent families.

Children fall through the cracks because there is no one committed to their well-being, in a society that is getting increasingly difficult to navigate. The boys who perpetrated the tragedy at Columbine High were nearing the end of their high school careers. Was anyone helping them make plans for their future? Leaving high school for the adult world can be an overwhelming transition, when the future looks bleak and hopeless.

We need to provide the support necessary to children and families in trouble. And parents should feel there is somewhere to turn for help and resources when their own efforts to reach a disenfranchised teen are not enough. If it takes a village to raise a child, this tragedy as well as other school tragedies, tells us there is a gross miscarriage of caretaking by our society.


Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

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