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Experts: Parents can help kids deal with tragic news

Media focus on events such as one in Amish country could add to trauma for some.

Be prepared for the irony: In this yet another article in reaction to the shootings on Monday at an Amish school, psychologists will note the ill effects of incessant media coverage after tragedies.

But, experts say, there are guidelines parents can follow in times of crisis, even when they themselves are worried, to reassure their children and help them effectively analyze and react to trauma.

In the age of around-the-clock news, kids are often exposed to events that create “vicarious traumatization,” according to local psychologist Robert Griffin, and they receive a skewed view that media coverage is representative of world events.

“It’s important to keep in mind that this is a low-prevalence activity even though it gets a lot of media attention,” he said. “Being at school is one of the safest places a child could possibly be. Statistically, they’re at more danger driving to school.”

Cindy Loftus-Vergari, a fellow of the American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress who works with traumatized children, has seen studies that show young children believed the traumatic events were reoccurring every time they saw footage of the Oklahoma City bombings.

That’s why parents should address traumatic topics with their kids before less-supportive voices cement their impressions, said Alicia Nordstrom, a child clinical professor at College Misericordia. Validation of children’s concerns is important, she said, but should be backed up by assuaging their fears, and discussion shouldn’t be forced.

Opinions differed on methods and extent of exposure, but the general consensus was communication is of paramount importance.

“We certainly need to talk to children. But it’s also important to listen to them to know what their experience is,” said Loftus-Vergari.

But talking won’t solve the issue for all kids, she said. The youngest children will express their feelings through play, she said, and elementary-aged kids through artistic creativity, usually drawing. Only in the teenage years will juveniles have enough analytical ability to talk it out.

Adults should also look for signs of anxiety, such as sleeplessness, headaches or indigestion, which can sometimes be indicators of budding troubles.

“Kids are tough because they give you a mixed message … because in their own head it’s a struggle (with their parents) … of dependence or independence,” said Mary Muscari, a nursing professor at the University of Scranton who has written several parenting guidebooks. “They’re not just being rotten.”

She said parents need to spend individual time with each of their children, even if for short periods, to look for signs or discuss problems. She suggested car rides or walks, where they won’t be staring at each other.

Another idea is to create a safety plan. By teaching kids how to use the phone and whom they should call in an emergency, she said parents can help kids “feel some control in a kind of out-of-control world.”

Violence tip line

Individuals with knowledge of credible threats against a student, teacher or school in Luzerne County are urged to call the school violence tip line. Phone: 1-866-700-KIDS (or 1-866-700-5437). This service, established in 2001 after a parochial school shooting in Williamsport, relies on Help Line’s caseworkers and is supported by the county commissioners.

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