December 26, 2014

School closings promt guidance about how to talk to your kids - By Elizabeth Giammarco, PhD, LCP

Within the past few days, the usual peaceful and safe communities of Windham and Raymond were brought into the reality of the 21st Century. Citizens of both towns were informed that because of undisclosed threatening emails, schools were closed and would remain so until the matter was resolved. Administrators assured all that the issue was being handled by the appropriate police and task forces. Although the knowledge that something serious was happening, no one except those close to the situation knew exactly what it was. Consequently, the peace and feelings of safety were replaced with apprehension, anxiety, fear, and suspicion for many. 
While there is no one book for how to deal with the uncertainly that is part of the times that we live in, there are some ways to deal with them. The following are a few guidelines that might help those such as parents, teachers, administrators, and of course, students who have experienced the recent events. However, each person and parent needs to follow what is best for them and their families. 

 First of all, the example of calmness, matter-of-factness, and honest evaluation of the situation that was given by the administrators of the schools is one to follow. Adults are the leaders whether they are parental figures or professional ones. When it comes to how to handle the situation with children of all ages, it is important for the adults to acknowledge their own feelings whether it is anxiety, fear or anger. Being able to speak with other adults about what is occurring can be a healthy outlet. However, it is important not to bring adult conversation to the ear shot of children. Children are perceptive and eager to listen to what adults are saying – they are supposed to be as that is one way they learn. Hearing conversations that they might not fully understand can lead to greater feelings of anxiety, confusion and fear.

Whether children are young, pre-teen, or teens, one way to help is to stop, look and listen. Being available for them so that they can ask questions, or just talk about their fears is important. Take time to listen to what they are saying and to be vigilant as to what they are not communicating verbally. For instance, younger children may draw pictures that depict what they are experiencing physically, and mentally. Or they may withdraw from all activity. Then too, they may exhibit how they feel during play with others or with their toys. In fact, play therapy is one way that some therapists use to see how a child is doing. If a child’s behavior changes such as may be seen with hygiene, toilet practices, play, sleeping habits, or contact with others, he/she needs to be evaluated by a health-care provider. Some may have physical symptoms such as headaches or tummy aches or just not feeling well.

 Not all children want to talk about what is occurring or has occurred. Allow them to do it on their own time. And even though teens may look and sound like adults, they still have the same feelings concerning uncertainty and safety, and in some instances, even more so. It may be more difficult to speak with them. However, a drive or some one-on-one time may help. When speaking with children, the conversation needs to be age-appropriate. It also needs to be honest in terms of what is known about the event/s to the extent that they can understand. Fears and other feelings need to be acknowledged and not minimized. All who are experiencing a bad situation need validation for what they are feeling, especially children according the American Pediatric Association.

 Although, it is not wise to state to children that bad things will never happen, it may be reassuring to say that the authorities (police and such) have the situation under control. Instilling calmness and lessening anxiety in children can be achieved by their knowing that adults and especially law enforcement are in charge. Being able to hug, cuddle, and show affection will help raise feelings of security and lower those of anxiety for some children. 

While media coverage may give adults knowledge of what is taking place, it is not the best choice for children and those adults who are sensitive to what they see and hear to be in a constant stream of what the press has to say. 

One of the problems with having to close school and work for several days, is that the continuity and routines of all who are involved are disturbed. Being able to have some order during these times is important for everyone – not just for children. Keeping routines as close to normal such as mealtime, playtime, work that can be done at home, and bedtime are needed so that equilibrium is not totally thrown off. 

 It is important to emphasize that even though the world can seem like a scary place, the majority of what is experienced is good. Being able to state to children especially that bad things can happen but there are a lot more positive things can help with their understanding of events. For those of us who live in Windham or Raymond, the knowledge that we live in relatively safe places ought to help with adjustment for most to recent events. Also, the plans put into place by our law enforcement as well as our school administrators during the past three days may help with our knowing that our safety and that of our children are a priority for them. 

 For those children or adults who may have problems with rebounding from the recent events, there is help through the schools, family physicians, pediatricians, and other agencies. If there is a question concerning any problems that may arise, one can contact school counselors, health-care provider, or call 211 for contact numbers.

This column is intended for informational use only and should not be used to diagnosis disorders.

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