Parents should provide perspective concerning shooting, say Manatee experts

rdymond@bradenton.comDecember 14, 2012 

MANATEE -- Mental health experts in Manatee County want to remind parents that their reaction to Friday's shooting in Connecticut will be closely watched by their kids.

"Our kids watch us so whatever the reaction the parents will have informs our kids as how they should react to this," said Robert Boxley, supervising psychologist at the Manatee Glens mental health hospital.

Manatee Glens serves more than 3,500 children per year, said Mary Ruiz, president and chief executive officer.

Boxley and his colleague, Cathy Wilson, the director of children's services and community programs at Manatee Glens, both said parents should give children perspective on the horrific elementary school shooting in Connecticut because children do not have the perspective that comes with life experiences.

"If the parent is calm, reassuring, confident and exudes a certainty in the child's safety, the child will pick up on it and go, 'OK, my parent thinks I am safe. I must be,' " Boxley said. "But if the parent exudes fear, dread and anxiety, the child will pick up on that."

Boxley and Wilson say it is important to let children know that despite the horrific images and reality of the event, tens of millions of children went to school Friday in the world and came home safely.

"You don't want to make promises that you can't keep, like saying, 'Mom will never let this happen to you,'" Wilson said. "It is better to say, 'People are working to keep you and your classmates safe. Your school has a safety plan.'"

Wilson also advises showing young children on a map that Connecticut is not next door.

Older students are not immune from being stressed out by the shooting, the mental health experts said.

"High schoolers think they have perspective when they don't," Boxley said. "Their perspective can get skewed, skewed in a scary way."

For instance, the mental health experts would not be surprised if some older students begin to be suspicious of classmates or go the other way and decide they will protect their school by beating up anyone who looks dangerous.

"Both things are perspective problems," Boxley said.

While Boxley believes letting kids know that a shooting in a school is rare, Chip Schaaff, a licensed mental health counselor who has a private practice in Sarasota, takes another approach.

He believes parents should validate the fact that the world is not always safe.

"One of the No. 2 stressers in kids is the awareness that the world is a dangerous place," Schaaff said. "That creates some anxiety for them."

So what is the remedy for a world that is deemed unsafe?

"The RX for that stress for the child is, 'My home is safe.'" Schaaff said. "That is very important. For a younger child that means you, as a parent, say, 'We don't know why such things happen but we will hug you tonight and you should always know we are here for you. You will have food on the table and your day and home is the same as it was yesterday."

For older kids, Schaaff recommends listening.

"Parents should say, 'What have you heard? What do you think is going on?' As a parent, you can't explain it. Evil is horrifying. What we should do is listen and assure them and then, even if we don't know the answers, that is OK to them."

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