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How Do You Talk To Children About Violence?

Audio

Aired 10/12/10

What are you telling your children about the school shooting in Carlsbad? How are you handling your concern about your kids at school?

Additional Resources

Tips for talking to kids about school violence.

On Friday, a gunman opened fire on students, at Kelly Elementary School in Carlsbad, during recess. Two children were shot and injured. The gunman was tackled by three men who were working on campus, he is being held at Vista Jail on suspicion of attempted murder. How safe are children at school? How should parents talk to their children about violence? What is the school district doing to reassure parents that their children are safe?

Guests

David Peters, a San Diego marriage and family therapist.

Christie Barnes, is the author of a new book called The Paranoid Parents Guide: Worry less, Parent Better and Raise a Resilient Child.

Read Transcript

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

I'm Maureen Cavanaugh and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. This is the first full school day at Carlsbad's Kelly elementary. Since last Friday when a man opened fire on students at play in a school yard. Two little girls were shot in the yard, they are new recuperating at home. The suspect in the case, Brendan O'Rourke, is suspected to be detained on charges of attempted murder. For many, the emotional healing process has already begun. This hour, we'll be talking about how kids can process a violent and scary event like this, and how parents can maintain a healthy concern for their kids' safety without constant and debilitating worry. I'd like to introduce my guests, Dave Peters of San Diego marriage and family therapist, and Dave, welcome back to the program.

DAVE PETERS: Good to see you again, Maureen.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And Christie Barnes is author of the new book, The Paranoid Parents Guide, worry less, parent more, and raise a resilient child.

CHRISTIE BARNES: Hi Maureen.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now we invite our listeners to join the conversation. What are you telling your children about the school shooting in Carlsbad? How are you handling your concern about your kids at school. Give us a call with your questions and comments, our number is 1‑888‑895‑5727. David, let's start at the very center of this violent event of for the children who were injured and their families what kind of emotional healing Dallas County they'll need?

DAVE PETERS: Well, time does heal as long as the environment is appropriate. So those who were injured, those who saw the injuries, those who were running in fear, they're gonna need to feel the closeness of parents, they're gonna need to tell the story, and tell it as much as they want to tell it. You're gonna see them enacting it on the play ground, I would assume. And I would bet that later in the week also, that some class time will be taken up with kids just needing to talk, and the smarter teachers will be able to allow a lot of loose time in the class itself so that kids can talk a little bit about it before they force a redirection back into the subjects at hand.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now is it essential that kids who were so close to this violence get professional help.

DAVE PETERS: Not at all. In fact, by over reacting, you can cause more trauma than is already there. It's important to use a good sense of judgment here. If your child is having nightmares, if your child is fearful, if your child is excessively clingy, that's a sign that, okay, they're witnessed a trauma, and more often than not, by just being a good parent, by being a good listener, by helping them talk it out, the kids will heal themselves. I would say you bring your child to a child counselor if over the coming weeks it seemed to not get better at all or if it was getting worse at all, or if they began to have physical symptoms that weren't go away, stomachache, headaches this sort of thing.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: We sometimes say when we look back at our own history or someone we know well that an event like this changed our lives and often not for the good. Is the goal of counseling after a traumatic event like this so that we don't experience any sort of lifelong consequence?

DAVE PETERS: Certainly so we don't experience a negative lifelong consequence. Ironically, events like this can cause some people to change for the better. I doubt it for the children. But for some reason, I've seen them reorganize their lives, where they realize where their values are of a life threatening event. But I doubt for the children there would be anything like that. For many of these childrens, they won't remember much of it, because they're so young, so by the time they're in their twenties, it will be a very gray memory for them.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: How does this affect the larger community of San Diego.

DAVE PETERS: Hopefully it doesn't bring about a sense of irrational fear, and that's the greatest concern, is people begin to over react and blame the schools for not having brick walls around it and armed guards and that sort of thing. From what I've seen, it seems like the city and the county have had a very good reaction, and a quite recovery. Negative reaction would be to assume that the streets are unsafe and that we need to take extra protective measures and instill fear in the community. This is a lone gun map issue that's an odd case, these things happen, those streets are as safe today as they were two weeks ago, and in our communities, there is still a level of violence, a level of violent crime that's as low as it was in the '70s. Between the '70s and today, we had a rise and a drop in the crime rate. The violent crime rate is not that high compared to one decade ago or two decades ago. So we can get a feeling of lack of safety, but I think it's important for everybody in the community to remember that we're quite safe.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: That is David Peters, a San Diego marriage and family therapist, and Christie Barnes also my guest, she is the author of a new book called the paranoid parents' guide: Worry less, parent better, and raise a resilient child. We're taking your calls at 1‑888‑895‑5727. Christie?

CHRISTIE BARNES: Yes.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: A school shooting is listed in your book as one of the unlikely events that parents worry too much about. But unfortunately as we found out last Friday, they do happen. So how would you advise a parent to put this into perspective?

CHRISTIE BARNES: Well, it's ‑‑ hello? .

Q. Yes.

CHRISTIE BARNES: Oh, sorry. The buttons ‑‑ my phone was beeping I do apologize.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: That's quite all right.

CHRISTIE BARNES: Yes, I mean I ‑‑ one reason I wrote my book, to look at what happens in our neighborhoods, look at the numbers, how often do these things happen? We see them them on the news and they are the scariest things that we could imagine. They are our worst nightmares so we then think, oh, that's got to be the biggest threat on our children. It often isn't. College age on down to nursery school, these incidents happen maybe once or twice a year, and so far this year, thank goodness, there haven't been any deaths.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Right.

CHRISTIE BARNES: So this is ‑‑ we get the impression, this is so scary, we don't know how to deal with it. We're looking at the unknown, we don't know how to deal with it. But what worries me is how much money then will get spent shooter and sniper proofing schools. And so we need to look does this really happen in our neighborhoods? Unfortunately it happened in this neighborhood.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Right.

CHRISTIE BARNES: But nationally, it's very ‑‑ schools are the safest place for your children to be.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, Christie barns in your book, the paranoid parent's guide, you actually list some of the more common threats to kids that often don't get common attention in the media and aren't very high up in the worry schematics of most parents. Tell us about that.

CHRISTIE BARNES: Well, you can look at when there's a kidnapping, a tragic kidnapping by a stranger, and a murder, of which there were about 45 last years, mostly teenage girls, you will see thousands of people, the community turn up to the funeral, but if there's a child run over or in a car accident, you don't see this massive turn out, but cars are still the biggest killer for our children, and still, 50 percent of American parents will throw those kids in the car without properly buckling or having them in the right kind of booster seat. Or will look aside when our children want to ride a awake down the street without a helmet. Doing those two thing, statistically would cut down on deaths 90 percent, and would cut down on serious injury about 70 percent. Wearing seatbelts and wearing helmets and the right sports equipment for biking and sports, but we don't think of those. Those aren't the scary ones. And the scary ones we see though most likely we couldn't have prevented anyway.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Yes. We're taking your calls at 1‑888‑895‑5727. I. To ask you both this, starting with you, David, how do worried parents affect their children?

DAVE PETERS: Well, anxiety spreads through the air before you even know it. So even though a parent may think they're hiding their anxiety, their tone of voice, their mannerisms, the look in their eye can reveal it to the children, and while children won't know the signal that they're receiving, they'll receive it. And so a mother who is suddenly this week over protective and trying to keep her child from being outside playing or trying to keep her closer by saying you can't go to Jimmy's house today, not today, just we're gonna wait a little bit until things settle, that communicates that we're not in a safe world. That communicates that that's immediate danger. And children, even though they won't say, mom, you're giving me a signal of anxiety, they'll feel the anxiety, and they'll be absorbing it into their nervous system. So a lot of this happens before anybody even knows it's happening.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I think Christie make a very important point that I'd like you to comment on, Dave, the fact that some things that parents can have control over, they can buckle up their kids, they can make their kids wear a bicycle helmet when they go out. But not having control over an incident that happened in Carlsbad, just makes it all that more worry as much I think for a lot of people, and how do you medical that in your own mind.

DAVE PETERS: Yes, well, I think it's just important for all of us to remind ourselves that when we see on the news the next tragedy, the next emergency, our nervous system is being triggered by the event, as if it's live in front of us, and only a number of decades ago, or say 20, 30 years ago, we didn't many of these, they happened but we weren't witness to them because there wasn't the video available, and there weren't so many witnesses with iPhones and cam corders, the more we're able to witness them, the more we experience the trauma firsthand. Especially hostage taking where everybody can watch the drama play out and they're notified. I think it's important for us to say these things have always happened, the world has always had and kind of lack of safety, it's important for me to get back to my working what I do during the day, and that's spending my time obsessing on one tragedy and one corner of the world.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: We're taking your calls at 1‑888‑895‑5727. And Christie, I want to give you a chance to speak how worried parents affect their kids because I know you've done a lot of thinking about this in preparing your book.

CHRISTIE BARNES: Yes, and what's really surprised me talking to parents borrow and after the research, and looking at Mayo Clinic studies, parents think often they aren't a good parent if they're not worried all the time. And watching the news, not having time to really process it, they think they're absolutely justified in thinking that this world is a very fearful place, and David touched on this. Homicide is down, robbery's down, kidnapping is down, but that's not what our perception is. And I often think I wish the news would carry a caption at the bottom, although this is a terrible tragedy, this is very likely to happen to your child, this does not happen to the average child, this almost never happens. It would be great if parents could have that risk assessment built into the news but that's not the job of the news to do.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Right. But it would put things in a better perspective you're saying?

CHRISTIE BARNES: It would, it would.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Let's take a call. Good morning, Tom, and welcome to These Days.

NEW SPEAKER: Good morning, and thank you for taking my call. I'm not a parent but I've been listening to these tragedies that have been happening at our schools. I think no one has really mentioned the idea of security guards. Of when I was in elementary school, there were older people around that kind of looked after us, we always felt more protected beside the teaching staff. And I think the congressmen in the areas that are being affected should address the fact that maybe they could use stimulus funds to increase security, especially at the elementary schools where children are helpless. Junior high and high school they could address it as well. Depending on the occurrence of things like this. But our children are just so unprotected and I think we need to have actual security guards in the schools, school grounds, the perimeters. Maybe based on the population of the school they should have one for each lateral of the school at least.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you for that. That's a ‑‑ thank you for that comment. I think a lot of people are thinking about that and how to increase security at schools but David, I wanted to mention one thing, I think that the sill lining in this school shooting episode that happened in Carlsbad, if we could say anything good that came out of it was the fact that people around, two construction workers, three construction workers jumped on this shooter and basically stopped whatever else he had planned to do. And I think that that sort of makes ‑‑ gives us a feeling that the community is involved in keeping our children and each other safe. Do you think it imparts that kind of a feeling.

DAVE PETERS: I do agree, Maureen. The story has some remarkable positive points in the public's response. Right there at the incident, as soon as there was an opportunity, those who were close by interevened as quickly as possible, putting their own lives at risk. And apparently witnesses were able to see that the school responded very very well. Of and orderly, and even the parents responded in a very orderly and calm manner which helped out a whole lot. As far as posting security guards at schools, honestly I'd rather see that money spent in better nutrition in the schools. We've got an obesity epidemic which is gonna kill more kids than random shooters. I'd rather see the investment in better books and more modern facilities for the kids to learn so that they have access to power in the world and bring about a better education. We could have a whole lot of security guards standing around waiting for the random event to happen that won't happen in the lifetime of the school itself.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And Christie, I would imagine you kind of agree with that.

GRANT BARRETT:ive absolutely agree with that. Upon we have this perception that schools are so vulnerable. But basic ‑‑ simple basic security, the locked door, the visitor wearing a back, people being signed in, works so effectively, and researching the book, I found schools across the country who were diverting a quarter of a million dollars from substitute teachers and from textbook and library budgets, in order to turn their school into fort Knox, which actually wouldn't have stopped any determined sniper. This basic security works incredibly well, and most schools have it. But ‑‑ and we see other schools going to great lengths, may microchip their kids, not the injectable kinds but the ones making their kids wear tags around their necks, to know where they know, to make sure everybody is in the right place at the right time. These are actually not productive steps. They sound good to parents who want to do something, want to do anything now, spend a lot of money but that's not actually solving the real problems that are happening in our schools.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: We're taking your calls at 1‑888‑895‑5727. James is calling us from San Diego, good morning James and welcome to These Days.

NEW SPEAKER: Yes, good morning thank you for taking my call. Just a quick response to the male person you have on there, he was talking about how it's, you know,ed world is not the same as it was 30 years ago and we just have an issue with the media and the exposure to the violence. And we get everything in real time. I do agree that we definitely ‑‑ I have an eight‑year‑old cart and we definitely do not want to put anxieties on our children and we do want to protect them. But we do live in a more dangerous world. We live in a world where video games show carnal examples and we live in a place where there is more violence in general, and even though crime is down this year, it seems like it might be wise to keep your children to be aware that they need to take more safety precautions and this is just a reaction from the parents.

CHRISTIE BARNES: I think we're not saying throw out your worries, it's a lovely world to live in. Be concerned, be aware and tell our kids about the drugs and bullying. But also know the real statisticics of what is and isn't happening so we can put it in an order for us and for our kids so we don't impart a fear to them.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And David, yes, I want to get your reaction to our caller.

DAVE PETERS: Yeah, kiwould say the violence of the video game is the greater immediate threat to the children than a kidnapper or a gun man. You know, a kidnapper, gunman, we're talking about one per hundred million, you know? But the video games millions of kids are involved with these, and the violent ones, the ones that are blood thirsty, these are causing damage to children's lives. They are numbing them in inappropriate ways and affecting their emotional well being. So I'm certainly in favor of being aware of video game violence. But the violence in our streets is low by comparison of the last 30 years and we have to acknowledge that.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I wonder, Christie, I think you could hear from our caller's voice, that you know, there was a certain level of concern there and a certain conviction that this is a more dangerous world than it used to be. How can we come to the realization do you think that worry itself is sometimes a danger to our well being and our child's well being?

CHRISTIE BARNES: Well, David hinted at this earlier. When you're in that worried fearful state, certain things trigger in the brain and injure rational brain ends up shutting off, and little worries start end up making you as anxious as the bigger ones. And what we need to do is look around our community and say, does this really happen in our community in our child's age groups? Which is why I wanted to go back and look at the numbers and I think with parents, it's a hard lesson to accept. I was a paranoid parent. I said, this can't be right, this is not what most parents feel. And I think it's a step by step process looking around and seeing in your community what your children are vulnerable to. What threats there are, then try to put them in a priority list. And I think really looking at the San Diego incident, they'll look around and say, actual lenot many people were affected. This kind of shooter sniper thing, they will get a better look at reality and how many people are affected than the rest of us in America who look the that fear and react in a very emotional way. We can almost be more traumatized over the long‑term than the ones who were in the community and see the realize likelihood, I was involved in this with some of the London bomb beings, and this tended to be the effect.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: That's interesting. Christie, part of the title of your book is how to raise a resilient child. How do you raise a resilient child?

CHRISTIE BARNES: We've find out what the dangers are and we give them, really, supervised risk taking. We don't nag and we know that they can fall down running. So there are things that we step in and interevene for but we want to avoid death and concussion. And our job as a parent is not to keep our kids completely safe, you know, no skinned knees, no broken arms, and happy. Of it's to get them to be able to function in the world without us. And we're teaching them to be helpless by conveying that we feel that there's fear everywhere. Oh, they may get kidnapped if we go to the grocery store, oh, they may get kidnapped if they're playing in the front yard. Of this kind of thing. Or they can't go over to a friend's house for a sleep over. We've got kids going to college who've never slept away from home. we've got to start teaching them how to function in the world.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And David, though, if a child is it afraid after hearing about the school shootings in Carlsbad, how do you get that child to get over this and become a resilient child? A child who can hear about scary things in the world and yet maintain their own identity and their own, you know, function think in the world?

DAVE PETERS: If I had a child today at that age who was afraid to go to school, I would really encourage the child to talk with me about the fear, listen well with a smile on my face and a warm voice in a relaxed way, and say, I understand. And I would take the child right outside and say, let's go look. I'd take the child right out to Kelly elementary school and go walking around and let them see children playing in the play ground, let them see people walking by with their dogs, let them see how relaxed the atmosphere can be. And say, this is where it happened. Do you see it happening now? And no, it looks okay now. And then they experience, ah, this event no longer exists. This event is done for now. I'm a big believer of in vivo training. Bring them out into the -- they really believe it's still happening not logically believe, but they emotionally experience that it's still happening. Many parents are still emotionally experiencing that this danger is still existing right over there in Carlsbad. And it's not. Of and so what this does is it kind of reboots the brain. It sets a new setting of it's like taking the old movie off and putting the new movie on. And being able to redirect ourselves to reality itself. When we're stuck with a negative thought, when we're stuck with a traumatizing thought, it reverterates in the brain over and over again.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I want to thank you both, we're out of time, but Christie Barnes, thank you so much.

CHRISTIE BARNES: Thanks Maureen.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: She's an author of a new book called the paranoid parent's guide, and David Peters, as always, thank you so much for coming in.

DAVE PETERS: It's always good to stop by Maureen.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And I'd like people to know that on our website, KBPS.org, we have tips for talking to kids about school violent. If you'd like to comment on this show, you can go to KBPS.org slash These Days.

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