Monday, November 23, 2015
In 2008, I blogged about a mass shooting on the campus of Northern Illinois University. Two of the soccer coaches trained US Youth Soccer Olympic Development Program players, so I’d become friends with them through my work with ODP. Because Robbie was being actively recruited by NIU, we had visited the campus just a week before the attacks took place. It was harrowing to have that connection, to know students at the school, and to share in the sadness and disbelief. Despite Robbie hovering in that zone between adolescence and adulthood, he felt tremendous fear. Now half way around the world, we hear about another coordinated assault that began and ended with a soccer connection. In Paris a couple weeks ago, a terrorist incursion began with bombings outside the Stade de France during an ironically designated “friendly” between France and Germany, holding 80,000 potential victims, including French President Francois Hollande. Luckily, besides the three suicide bombers, only one person lost his life thanks to the perpetrators arriving late and being denied entrance. But lamentably there would be more carnage throughout the city that night. The object of these attacks was initially meant to cause as much injury as possible, but the real plan was to create collateral damage in the form of terror – hence the term “terrorists.” Their objective is to freeze people through the fear that at any moment anyone could be a target, and given the rapid spread of media attention the entire world quickly became ancillary victims, a state which particularly affects our children.
The best reaction we adults can have is anger. We understand the context of these events and we can rationalize and ultimately control our fears. Instead we get mad, making the determination to not let the terrorists win. However, for our children these news stories seem all too close and all too real. They only know the fear. It doesn’t have to be a man-made crisis; it can be a natural disaster or a catastrophe, such as a building collapse that sets off terror in our children. Robbie was deathly afraid of tornadoes. He even refused to appear in one of my brother’s movies because it was filming in Omaha during April – as he so eloquently noted “that’s tornado alley — in high season.” He was 10. Friends of ours who ran a restaurant we often visited after soccer practice lost their daughter in the Twin Towers on Sept. 11. The boys were very aware of this fact, which made the event all the more real and immediate for them as small children.
What can parents do when kids see these crises broadcast on TV, splashed in browser pop-ups on the internet, and emblazoned in headlines in the morning paper? It’s virtually impossible to keep disaster from our children. The more they see, the more it becomes real for them. Shootings in Paris, a typhoon in the Philippines, an earthquake in Haiti, or a mine disaster in China all seem like they exist in their own backyards. They have no understanding of statistics, distances, and probabilities with which to sooth their fears. In the many tributes to the victims, the cameras focused on children laying flowers and candles on sidewalks in front of the sites of attacks. I can only imagine how devastating it has been to their sense of security to be so close to tragedy. These children weren’t witnesses to the actual events, but they experienced them through their parents’ reactions or when they sat in a stadium unaware of how close danger had come but becoming acutely mindful later. What we parents have to understand is that our own children thousands of miles removed from these calamities feel just as immediately frightened as their counterparts in Paris.
It’s left to us parents to find ways of making them understand that the dangers aren’t so close and possible. We can do this by providing some context through education. Pulling out a globe to show kids where they live and where the crisis occurred can help ease their fears that they are really just inches away from disaster. For example, we can talk about how long it took for us to drive to St. Louis, show that route on a map, and then show where Paris is in comparison. Use a bowl of rice to demonstrate the small percentage of people injured compared to an entire population. We can also validate stability to give our kids security. Express how the Eifel Tower is still standing, surviving over 100 years through two wars and even these recent attacks. For Robbie, we pointed out how many tornadoes had touched down in S.E. Wisconsin, how far from our house they were, and how long our house, our neighborhood, and our town had survived without damage. We created a “tornado safe” spot in our basement with pillows, flashlights, water, and crackers so he knew where he would be protected. Paradoxically, we were even able to use pictures of tornado devastation to reinforce that despite the destruction, everyone survived due to good warnings and attention to safety. Kids are immediate in their perceptions and emotions, so we can help them gain enough distance to feel comfort.
Naturally, the more we can shield our children from these stories the better. We can easily forget how watching the evening news while preparing dinner opens a door we don’t want them looking through. We can employ a default browser that doesn’t immediately post news stories when our kids open it. We should avoid discussing these disasters with other adults when surrounded by tiny ears. But most importantly, we need to be ready to answer the tough questions without minimizing the queries. We can downplay the dangers, the possibilities, and the outcomes, but we should never downplay the fears. These are very real to our children and need soothing not dismissal. Considering our own anxieties, we can all sympathize. We know the rational explanations why we shouldn’t be afraid of spiders or flying or horror movies, but we are. It’s no different for our children except they have less perspective through which to process and alleviate the fears. We can provide that context for them, but more significantly we can give the warm fuzzies that ultimately make everything better.