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Mark Goulston, M.D.

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'Is It Safe Yet?' How to Talk to Your Children About the Arizona Shootings

Posted: 01/11/11 12:54 PM ET

What do the Arizona shootings and 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina or news of a plane crash have in common? All of them take over the news and all of them can cause younger children to wonder, "Is it safe, Mommy and Daddy?"

When they see or hear on the news of another terrorist attack somewhere in the world, they can worry, "Are they going to come and blow up our city?"

When they watch rainstorms and winds cause massive flooding, they can worry, "Are we all going to drown like the people in New Orleans?"

When they are in a plane that is flying through turbulence, they can worry, "Are we going to crash?"

And now when they see or hear a mentally unstable person ranting and raving in a parking lot, a mall, a store or walking between moving cars, they can worry, "Are they going to pull out a gun and start shooting at us?"

Young children look to their parents for safety and pick up whether it's safe, not just from what their parents say, but from their tone of voice and from what they do. The calmer the parent, the safer a child feels; the more uptight the parent, the more unsafe they feel.

However before a parent can speak calmly they need to feel calm. And events like the Arizona shootings mess that all up.

Here is why. We all need denial to function in the world. If we couldn't deny that the cars next to us might smash into us, we wouldn't be able to drive. If we couldn't deny that a plane can fall out of the sky, we wouldn't be able to fly. If we couldn't deny that an incredible amount of impurities goes into our food, we wouldn't be able to eat. And if we couldn't deny that that person ranting and raving as we pass them on the sidewalk is any danger to us, we wouldn't be able to walk through many neighborhoods and urban centers.

When an event such as the Arizona shootings takes place, it pierces through our armor of denial and without denial, we feel exposed. That is why we freeze in our tracks upon immediately hearing of such news or watching the planes hit the twin towers on 9/11. With denial suddenly stripped away our next fear is that we will shatter and the temporary feeling of being totally raw and exposed can cause many people to feel panicky.

Fortunately as time passes, our mental apparatus has a strong innate capacity for resilience, calming down and with that coming back to our senses and re-developing a sense of perspective that this event isn't "the sky falling," but an aberration that will occur from time to time, but will not be continuous.

How well we are able to restore and then maintain a strong emotional and psychological connection to a healthy sense of optimism (a.k.a. hope) after a tragic event like this one (or for that matter, to people who disappoint or anger us or to a job that presents us with hassles and obstacles) is referred to as "object constancy." It goes back to early infancy and the parenting we receive, where if we have "object constancy" and our parent (usually our mother) goes away to do something, we have the trust that she will return. If we lack "object constancy" and she leaves, that can cause us to believe she won't return and if we are deeply dependent on her, it can throw us into a psychological tailspin. "Object constancy" is learned mostly from having the experience of what is called "good enough parenting." That means if our mom goes away, she comes back within a reasonable amount of time so that we can still hold onto the belief that she will return when she is away. Optimistic people tend to have greater "object constancy" and believe that if something is not going well, that it will turn around. On the other hand, pessimistic people have less "object constancy" and believe that if something is not going well, it will get worse (because help will not come in time and they will be faced to deal with everything on their own).

There will be many diagnoses thrown about with regard to Jared Longhner, but regardless of whichever is decided on, one this for certain is that he lacked "object constancy" in his incapacity to hold onto anything positive in the face of the many disappointments he has experienced.

To help build "obejct constancy" in our children, the message we must give them when they are feeling unsafe is, "Yes, an awful thing has happened, but it is rare and we are safe." If they still have trouble accepting that, bring up to them a number of times in their life when they thought something awful was going to happen and it didn't. If they are able to comprehend it, you can even explain that when we feel nervous or scared our body reacts in a certain way, and then we can begin to feel we are in danger just because our body is telling us we are.

But the message you tell them is less important than what you enable them to tell you so that they can get all their fears and concerns fully off their mind and into your calm caring and understanding. Then and only then should you reassure them that everything will be okay. Rushing in to reassure them before they speak and feel heard and feel "felt" can often short circuit what they need to get off their chest and be less calming and may in fact communicate your underlying anxiety to your child which may not feel reassuring at all. So don't rush in too quickly to tell them everything will be fine, before they have been able to tell you what they're worried and scared about.

Here's something to takeaway, "Just because you and your children are afraid doesn't mean you are in any danger." However neither of you will believe that until time passes and you both see that more bad events don't occur and until your body begins to relax so that it can stop broadcasting to your psyche that you are in danger.

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