Raising kids that aren’t killers

Local schools had just closed when news of another school shooting in the USA dampened the holiday spirit, striking fear into every parent and educator and leaving the general public wondering what the world is coming to. South Africans experience many threats to personal safety but nothing seems as unsettling as the random slaughter of school children.  In an effort to calm our fears we tend to grasp for explanations. We blame such things as the availability of firearms, individual mental illness, bad parenting, school bullying, inadequate school or government policies or a legal system that encourages people to seek compensation when they feel miserable.

The idealism of democracy makes us believe that we can influence public policy, yet the irony is that we then expect the Government to sort everything out and get away without having to take any responsibility for change ourselves. Perhaps, instead of looking for answers that justify the changes others need to make we should look at what we can do differently.  Parents, you are raising the next generation and according to the Ghanaian proverb ‘the ruin of a nation begins in the homes of its people’. Examine how relationships and policies within your own home are influencing the emotional health and attitudes of your children. Here are some guidelines to help your family, and the nation, grow after the Sandy Hook tragedy:

  • Listen to your child’s fears and admit your own 

    If you are anxious but trying to pretend that you feel in control, while telling your child not to worry about bad things happening, you are sending mixed messages. This can cause your child to feel anxious yet unable to talk about it because feelings are not easily spoken of in the home. Talk privately to other adults about your grown-up fears but let your child know that you have mixed-up feelings and that it is normal to feel that way when sad and bad things happen. You are then modeling honest acceptance of feelings and taking responsibility for your own behavior when you feel upset. Rather than say, “Don’t be scared” tell her that you can see she is scared, that everyone gets scared sometimes and that she can talk about it if she wants to.

  • Talk about guns 

    Playing with toy guns does not create killers. Research shows that playing at being soldiers during wartime helps increase children’s resiliency. But children should be told that there is a difference between a toy and a real gun and that real guns are dangerous. Teach your child that even toy guns should not be pointed at living things. Make it clear that people pull triggers and hurt others and that the person, not the gun, is responsible for the hurt.

  • Talk about human behavior 

    Have open, non-judgmental discussions about the sad, bad and silly things that people do. Help your children to recognize that the potential to be a Madiba or a murderer lies within all of us. We need to recognise our weaknesses, nurture the strengths and react appropriately to warning signs that indicate personal stress. Discuss how to recognize people who are under pressure or need help and how to access that help. Rather than lecturing on ideal behavior, listen to stories of how kids deal with bullying, prejudice and frustration at school. Model empathic reactions to descriptions of other children’s bad choices and then discuss what they could have done differently. Older children and teenagers may be quicker to form an opinion based on the trends at school. Help them to look at the information they have with new eyes, coaching them to resist jumping to stereotyped or prejudiced conclusions.

  • Put safety into perspective 

    After a natural disaster or tragic news story children can be very fearful about their own safety and that of their loved ones. They might lose their appetite or experience nightmares.  It’s natural to want to reassure them with promises that you will not let anything bad happen – but you may not be able to keep that promise. Tell them that it makes sense to you that they are worried because everybody hates thinking of loved ones getting hurt and then talk about what you actually do that keeps them safe.  You can ask them how many minutes in the day they felt worried and how many times in the day a family member got hurt. Then get them to see that the amount of worry is so much more than is needed for the amount of hurt that happens in a usual day. Tragic days are, thankfully, out of the ordinary.

  • Turn off the television 

    Try not to expose your children to repeated images of bad things. Images are harder to forget than words and can linger in memory attached to the scary and sad feelings that stories of disaster evoke in us. Take a parental decision to limit the amount of bad news you are prepared to let enter your home. Watch the late news on your own and use the early evening time to read and play with your children.

  • Don’t punish with pain 

    A beating will generally stop bad behaviour because all living creatures have an instinct to protect themselves from harm. But there are side effects to using pain to control people. Research shows that children punished with beatings or humiliation learn to use violence to solve their problems.  Children’s behaviour can be managed by acknowledging feelings, setting firm limits and offering choices with clear consequences for bad choices.

  • Seek professional help 

    Parents may resist seeking outside help because of shame or a popular myth that it shows weakness, rather than courage, to recognize that you need support.  Contact a doctor, psychologist or social worker if your child has frequent explosive outbursts, makes threats of harm towards himself or others, hurts animals, is fascinated by weapons, has experienced bullying, is extremely withdrawn or lacks real friendships, or if you want to develop your parenting skills.

Written by Sheryl Maastrecht, Educational Psychologist in Private Practice. East London. December 2012
Published in Saturday Dispatch 2012-12-29

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