Thursday, April 18, 2013

Yes Virginia, there is such a thing as Monsters

The last few nights we’ve been struggling with a little boy who hasn’t want to go to bed because he’s afraid there are monsters in his closet.  We’ve been explaining to him that monsters are just fun creatures made up in stories like Elmo and Telly in Sesame Street or Henry in Disney’s new Henry Hugglemonster.  Our hope had been that he’d associate monsters with fuzzy funny characters that he might dream about versus creepy crawlies that would give him nightmares  making it easier for us to get him to let us turn his bedroom light off and allow everyone in the family to get back to getting a good night’s rest.  Then as we were in the middle of the “monster in the closet” problem with our son the Boston Marathon bombing occurred.  The horrific incident that occurred on April 15th in Boston made me think that while it was important for me to have my son understand that while the “Where the Wild Things Are” type monsters are fantasy creations that he also beware that our world is filled with some very real “monsters”.

In one of the most famous newspaper editorials of all time, Francis Pharcellus Church tells 8 year old Virginia O’Hanlon in the September 21, 1897 edition ofthe New York Sun that “Yes Virginia , there is a Santa Claus.  He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist …. “   Unfortunately, in that same context I have to say that there are monsters and they are very real.  They may not have horns, or fangs, or claws and may look just look like an average person like you or I look in the mirror, but as long as there are people who are willing to inflict harm or kill others without remorse than monsters truly exist in our world.

I remember as a child myself how our community was filled with terror as parents warned us never to talk to strangers and stay close to home as the Oakland County Child Killer abducted, molested and murdered four children during a 13 month period.   The other big danger of my youth, that looking back appears to be more of an urban myth than a reality, but lead to real hysteria in the town I grew up in was the fear of monsters putting razor blades and other metal objects in Halloween candy.  I remember anxiously standing in long lines waiting for the police to x-ray and run my trick-or-treat candy through a metal detector before I could dig into it.  Looking at that now not very sure how safe eating that irradiated candy might have been but I’m glad my parents cared enough to want to safeguard me by going through the effort.  These were terrible things for parents to have to safeguard their children from but at least there were reasonable precautions that could be taken that could give responsible families reasonable assurances of safety.

As a parent now, I look at the horrific tragedies that have occurred in just the last few months: 12 people killed & 58 injured in a movie theater shooting near Denver; a mass murder at an elementary school in Connecticut that killed 20 kindergarteners and six teachers; 3 killed and more than a hundred people wounded at the Boston Marathon.  How do you educate your children that while there aren’t monsters lurking in their closet they could very well be lurking in your neighborhood without scaring the hell out of them to the point they never want to leave your house again? 

 In this post 911 world we live in  an era that there are dangers that are out of our control to avoid, but what is under our control is whether or not we continue to live our lives as we wish or shelter ourselves away in fear.  Also it is important to remember that despite all the attention horrible crimes receive it is still far more likely that your family will be victimized by a pedophile or drunk driver than a terrorist or mass murderer.  So my goal as a parent is to make sure that my kids live the life they want to lead by making sure they understand there are “monsters” among us and you need not be afraid but you do need to be vigilant all the time to possible dangers.  It appears that the steps that my parents took to protect me are still the right actions in today’s era: promote an understanding of “stranger danger”, make sure your child respects their body not allowing “bad touching”, and that you are actively involved with your child keeping tabs on where they are and what they are up to.

According to the National Crime Prevention Council (NCPC), the best way parents can protect their children is to teach them to be wary of potentially dangerous situations so they are prepared to deal with strangers as well as known adults who may not have good intentions.  What else can a parent do, here are a few more tips from the NCPC:

·         Know where your children are at all times. Make it a rule that your children must ask permission or check in with you before going anywhere. Give your children your work and cell phone numbers so they can reach you at all times.

·         Point out safe places. Show your children safe places to play, safe roads and paths to take, and safe places to go if there’s trouble.

·         Teach children to trust their instincts. Explain that if they ever feel scared or uncomfortable, they should get away as fast as they can and tell an adult. Tell them that sometimes adults they know may make them feel uncomfortable, and they should still get away as fast as possible and tell another adult what happened. Reassure children that you will help them when they need it.

·         Teach your children to be assertive. Make sure they know that it’s okay to say no to an adult and to run away from adults in dangerous situations.

·         Encourage your children to play with others. There’s safety in numbers!

For more tips and information from the NCPC on helping your children be prepared for dangerous situations and emergencies visit,
 Also keep mind that news coverage of traumatic events like the Boston Marathon Bombing can cause distress to children and impact them as if they were a part of the tragedy.  The DART CENTER FOR JOURNALISM& TRAUMA has researched the topic and found that children are attentive to media coverage of mass tragedies and the negative impact that results from this viewing consumption is a vital public health concern.

The New York City Health Department has issued a warning that repeated viewing of media reports of traumatic events can upset and negatively impact children.  They have provided a chart on how media reports are seen through the eyes of children:

Ages 6 & Younger
  • Believe what they are seeing is happening LIVE while they are watching it;
  • They believe the traumatic event is happening over and over again when they see repeated images of it;
  • Find images of people suffering, crying or being attacked very upsetting

Ages 7 – 10
  • Understand news is made up of reports of things that have already happened;
  • Find disturbing media images upsetting;
  • May become anxious for their own and their family’s safety

Age 13 & Older
  • Can be scared and horrified as the same things as younger children;
  • They can become deeply worried and anxious about their own safety and that of their family;
  • They want to know why the bad things they see on TV are happening
Obviously depending on a child’s age exposure to media coverage of violent events should be limited.  If they are watching this type of media than watch it together with them and explain what is happening.  Here are a few tips to keep in mind from the New York Health Department:

  • Make sure they understand that while the images may be shown repeatedly, what they are seeing only happened once.
  • Tell them only as much as they really are mature enough for in a way they can understand.
  •  Answer their questions and correct any misunderstandings about the event being show on the news. 
  • Be aware of their fears and assure them that they are safe.
  • Explain to them that the news is often about bad things, but most people are good.
I also found some great tips online from psychologists at Children’s Medical Center of Dallas:

• Limit media coverage: It is important that children are not unnecessarily exposed to media coverage of these events. There is nothing to be gained from letting a child watch news coverage of the aftermath of the shootings. Older children may be interested and it may be appropriate to allow them some exposure; however, parents should watch with their children to be ready for questions and discussion. Younger children should not have any exposure to media coverage of these events. Naturally, even young children may gain information through peers or a chance exposure to TV news, so parents must be aware of this and be ready to help the children process this information. 

• Be calm: Adults must model a sense of calm and reassurance for children, monitoring their own reaction, anxiety and outrage about the shooting.

• Reassure them: Some children may need more ongoing reassurance about their safety. It can be helpful for parents to point out steps that are being taken to help ensure a child's safety at school.

• Answer their questions: As questions arise, tell children the truth in a developmentally appropriate manner. Answer only the specific questions the child asked in a factual manner. It is critical not to speculate or  overwhelm the child with more information than they are seeking. It is equally important that parents not close discussion of the topic — letting children ask questions and express their anxieties can help them cope.  

• Accept their reactions: Do not dictate a reaction to a child or dismiss his reaction. Children should be told that feelings of uncertainty, fear or anxiety are normal reactions to events like this. Don’t necessarily expect children to open up and give their feelings on demand; rather, be cognizant of signs and symptoms of anxiety and stress so that they are prepared to let their children express their feelings according to the child's timeline.

• Maintain normal routines: Maintain a sense of normalcy at home and at school by staying with normal routines for meals, homework and bed time. Understand that children struggling with anxiety and stress may have difficulty completing schoolwork or have difficulty falling asleep at night. At the same time, it’s important not to be overly rigid about the routines; rather, try to maintain the normal schedule to provide children with a sense of predictability and security.

• Watch for vulnerability: Some children are by nature more vulnerable to periods of stress and anxiety. Parents and teachers must be aware of children who may be more vulnerable. Children who have experienced a previous traumatic event, personal loss, significant life change, or who experienced mental illness are particularly at risk for having trouble coping with such an event. Similarly, children who don’t have a strong support system – network of friends and family – may be more vulnerable and in greater need of support.

• Be there: Parents should be very available to their children following this event. Not only will this reassure the child, but it also gives parents a good opportunity to monitor the child's stress level, anxiety and reaction. This is a good time to increase family time and to model a calm, reassuring and in-charge presence for children.

• Warning signs: Parents should be aware of warning signs of high anxiety and fear. These might include persistent worry about their own safety or the safety of loved ones, problems falling asleep or other sleep disturbances such as nightmares, withdrawal from family and friends, excessive clinginess and dependence, irritability, sadness, or decreased activity, preoccupation with the recent shootings or ideas of death and violence, agitated behavior or new behavioral problems and nonspecific physical complaints. Do not hesitate to contact a pediatrician or mental health professional if you have concerns. 

• It can be empowering for children to have activities to focus their energies on during times of heightened anxieties. Consider involving children in prayer groups, church activitie, or volunteer work for community agencies that assist victims of crime or traumatic events. Younger children can be encouraged to draw pictures or write cards in support of victims of the shootings or other violent crimes and traumatic events. This is also a good time to rehearse and reinforce vigilance and child safety practices as well as home security measures. 

As parents these are difficult topics and challenges for us to address, but the safety and wellbeing of our kids is our most important responsibility.  If you have any tips on talking with your kids about monsters and taking precautions as a parent to protect your children please share them with us in the comment section.  Good luck and God Bless to everyone dealing with this subject in their homes!

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