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There have always been natural and man-made disasters. Children have always been frightened by bad things happening in their world and parents have always tried to both protect and comfort their children. What has changed is media coverage.
The cameras are right there recording the horrors, we have 24-hour news channels, and TV producers choose the most newsworthy coverage which in the case of the tsunami has been an emphasis on what has happened to children. Both the death toll in children and the number of children orphaned is horrific.
There are some specific things parents can and should do when their children are exposed to news of a catastrophe involving children. It starts with the obvious. Minimize your child’s exposure to TV images. I wish I had a magic wand that would have turned off TV sets in all homes with children starting December 26 when the pictures of the dead and dying flooded our eyes. But I know that TV is a part of our children’s world and that parents must deal with this reality.
The best way to deal with children exposed to frightening and unbelievably tragic images of dead and dying children is the following:
1. TALK ABOUT IT. Always be honest. Never try to conceal the truth, lie, gloss over the facts, or pretend nothing happened. Children are terrified when they know something bad happened and their parents won’t talk about it. Children actually feel safer when they see that their parents are troubled by a bad thing but are willing to talk about it.
When you talk be sure to EXPRESS YOUR OWN FEELINGS. “What a terrible thing to happen!” Parents are role models. They show their children how to deal with strong feelings. Parents answer children’s unspoken questions: How are people supposed to think about something like this? How are people supposed to act? When something sad happens, let your children see you cry. Don’t pretend nothing happened or it doesn’t matter. Never give a child the message that emotions are best concealed or ignored.
ALWAYS ADD THAT YOU WILL DO EVERYTHING IN YOUR POWER TO KEEP YOUR CHILD SAFE.
2. ENCOURAGE YOUR CHILD TO TALK ABOUT WHAT HAPPENED AND TO ASK QUESTIONS. You should ask your child questions that require a thinking answer like, “How do you suppose that child’s Mommy feels?”
A bright child may ponder the big, unspoken philosophical question: “That child’s parents wanted to keep their little girl safe but she was swept away anyway.” Tell your child this is exactly why everybody feels so bad when innocent children whose parents loved them are harmed.
Encourage young children to draw pictures or act out a scary scenario with dolls. Older children? Suggest they write a poem or story about what happened.
3. EMPOWER YOUR CHILD. Suggest things the child can do to help like collect money for UNICEF or the Red Cross. Empowerment comes from getting involved and doing something. Doing nothing leads to feelings of helplessness.
The principles are simple: TALK ABOUT IT, ENCOURAGE YOUR CHILD TO TALK, AND EMPOWER YOUR CHILD. Easy to remember, not so easy to do. But make the effort. Our children really need us when they live through troubling times.
A personal thought. I was astounded and moved by the fact that 32 hours after the tsunami hit Thailand and Sri Lanka tide gauges on the east coast of the US recorded its ripples which originated more than halfway around the world. It makes me appreciate that we are one people on a fragile planet. We should help each other rather than killing each other in war. We should tend to the environment as it is the only garden we will ever have. We should send both government and personal charity dollars to hungry and homeless children all the time, not just after a disaster. We should be grateful for the blessings and comforts of our lives and share these to the best of our abilities.
Finally, don’t forget to hug your children and rejoice that they are safe.
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