Moms: Helping Kids Deal With Violent Events

Nine-year-old Christina Green was the youngest victim of the shooting tragedy in Arizona, earlier this month. Her death shocked the nation - including children - and raised questions about how kids deal with incidents of violence. In the weekly parenting segment, host Michel Martin speaks with a panel of moms about helping children make sense of traumatic events. Also joining the discussion is psychiatrist Glenn Kashurba, who has worked extensively with traumatized children.

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MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Now it's time for our weekly conversation with the moms, which we have because they say it takes a village to raise a child. That's why we gather a diverse group of parents for their common-sense and savvy parenting advice. Today, we're still thinking about Christina Taylor Green. That's the 9-year-old girl who was killed a little over a week ago when a man named Jared Loughner allegedly opened fire at a congressional meet and greet in Tucson, Arizona.

Now, we know that children are thinking about this. How could they not be? Even if you make every effort to shield them from difficult and frightening news, chances are they've heard about this from somebody, and they're asking questions. And that also got us to thinking about the fact that many kids are exposed to frightening and violent episodes all the time - maybe going home on the subway or the bus, maybe even at school.

We wanted to talk more about some ideas about how to help kids through these difficult incidents. With us are our regular moms, Dani Tucker, the parent of two teenagers; Jolene Ivey, the mom of five boys. She also happens to be an elected official. This is one reason we're glad that she's with us here today. Sue Goodwin is the executive producer of TALK OF THE NATION, that's another national program here on National Public Radio. She's the mother of a teenage son who recently witnessed a physical assault in the Washington, D.C., Metro.

And with us for some additional perspective, we're pleased to have with us Dr. Glenn Kashurba. He is a doctor - a psychiatrist - and he's worked extensively with children who experience traumatic situations. For example, he worked with kids in his home community after 9/11, after Flight 93 crashed there in his hometown. So, I'm glad to have all of you with us today; thank you all so much for joining us.

DANI TUCKER: Thank you.

JOLENE IVEY: Thank you.

GLENN KASHURBA: Thank you.

MARTIN: So Jolene, I'm going to start with you because in addition to being the mom of five boys, you're also an elected official. You're a state legislator in Maryland. You've recently been elected and sworn in to serve your second term. So I did want to ask if your kids are asking questions about what happened in Tucson last week.

IVEY: You know, almost more importantly than me being an elected official, my husband, up until about a week ago, was an elected official. And a few years ago, he was shot with a pellet gun. And he, you know, at the moment I got the report, we didn't know what he'd been shot with. We just knew he'd been shot, and we didn't know how bad it was.

MARTIN: And he was in law enforcement. He was a state's attorney.

IVEY: He's a state's attorney - was the state's attorney for Prince George's County, Maryland. So fortunately, it turned out to be, you know, not a life- threatening injury. But it was scary at the time, and we didn't know if he'd been targeted. So that really gave us all pause.

MARTIN: So are the kids asking questions?

IVEY: Yeah.

MARTIN: Your kids range in age from young adult to - your youngest is?

IVEY: Right. Almost 11.

MARTIN: Almost 11. But still close enough in age to the young lady.

IVEY: You know...

MARTIN: I think that's the kind of thing that hits home.

IVEY: In our house, we hear so many bad things that happened because of my husband's job, because we always were hearing about homicides. This one was different because of the little girl, in a lot of ways. And one of my kids told me that when he heard about it, it took his breath away. And that was - really, surprised me that he took it that seriously.

MARTIN: Dani, what about you? You have an older teen and a younger teen. Are they asking questions about this?

TUCKER: They're asking questions, but more so about who did it and why. Because, you know, where we live, they're used to the violence, unfortunately. And, you know, we see it a lot in Ward 8, in Southeast. So the actual trauma against - one person against another, that's not as high on their list as - opposed to getting to the bottom of it. They look at things and say well, I understand why, you know, so and so was shot; they were doing bad things, and that's what happened.

But in this case, this young lady was at a - in front of a grocery store, meeting her congresswoman. So yeah, that, they wanted to talk about - they wanted to know if, you know, this had anything to do with a lot of the rhetoric that had been going on and, you know, especially where it happened. So - and we just talked about it, my daughter and I.

MARTIN: So the randomness is kind of frightening.

TUCKER: Yeah, the randomness is frightening to them, and where it happened. You know, I mean, even they, especially kids in our urban area, they look at other places to be the places that are safe. And to them, that was a safe spot, you know? So they're like, whoa, wait a minute, you know. So that was a little surprising, especially to my daughter.

MARTIN: So Dr. Kashurba, if you would just start by talking a little bit about what you think a lot of kids are probably thinking about, right now, particularly kids who are younger.

KASHURBA: Well, yeah, it depends on each kid. And we tend to focus on an event like this when it happens and it catches the media's attention. But really, these types of things happen all the time in terms of violent acts and also, seemingly random problems. Because even if you can get beyond somebody doing something to someone else, we have accidents; we have cancer; we have all sorts of things.

So the kids, all the time, are able to have to deal with these types of things. Now, some kids, you know, when you look at the effect on the kid of anything like this, the things I suggest parents do is they, first of all, understand the developmental age of the child. You know, the second thing, they try to understand how much they've been exposed to regarding this particular event. And then the third thing would be how close are these kids to what happened.

So for instance, one of our moms there who is an elected official, that is much closer to them than it is to someone else. Certainly, somebody who is similar age to the little girl that was shot, those kids are going to have more of a connection than somebody who is - say, much younger, doesn't really know what's going on that much.

MARTIN: Would you recommend that the parent kind of ask a lot of questions? Because I think a lot of parents, their instinct is to not ask, to hope that it goes away, to sort of not talk about it - to say well, this has nothing to do with you so just forget about it. What do you think?

KASHURBA: Yeah, the two things we emphasize is first of all, we like to limit the amount of graphic representation of the event that the kids see. We've learned a lot about what we call vicarious trauma since 9/11. We saw that there were a lot of people around the country who actually developed post-traumatic stress symptoms, who were nowhere near where any of the flights crashed. And that occurred from watching it on television. So we try to limit how much coverage, especially kids, watch about these events, and try to explain it to them more through something that is not so graphic.

The other thing is yes, you want to look for signs, and you want to ask. For some kids, what might seem to be a big deal may not be. For other kids, what might not seem to be a big deal might be. So yes, I would ask. But there's only so much asking that you need to do. Sometimes, parents ask about a hundred more questions than they need to.

MARTIN: Well, that's a good, you know, this is a good time to bring Sue Goodwin into the conversation because the fact is - you know, this awful thing in Tucson is terrible. But the fact is, I think, a lot of people forget how much kids see on an ongoing basis just going to school, doing exactly what they are supposed to do that - it doesn't make the headlines. And Sue, I think you're an example of that, of something that happened involving your son that a lot of people, unfortunately, experience. If you just - tell us what happened.

GOODMAN: Right. This happened right before Thanksgiving. And my 17-year-old son was on the subway with two of his friends going home, and one of his friends was assaulted by a couple of other young men, sort of caught by the neck up by the door of the subway car; robbed - wallet, iPod, etc. And my son actually was the one that alerted the police, and may have to testify in court. And what was important at that point in time - and I've always done this with my son - is give him room to have all of his feelings.

Yes, he's angry. Yes, he's upset, very upset for his friend. Yes, he's scared, and to really give him a lot of room. In fact, in this particular time he had to say Mom, you're not listening enough. And really give him room - that it's not wrong to have feelings. But there's also a point in time where you have to line up the feelings with reality, and do a reality check.

For example, your feelings might be oh, it's those kids from that part of town. Well, the truth is, only a few of the kids from that part of town will ever do anything like this. So we have to do a reality check so we don't turn a feeling into a stereotype. Or, he's afraid that maybe there will be retaliation if he speaks out. We meet with the principal. There's actually a social worker for witnesses in the D.C. judicial system, so we reassure him that he will be supported - to put a check on his fears.

But I agree, Michel. You mentioned - I think we sometimes we rush in to cut off the feelings too soon. Feelings, in themselves, are not wrong.

MARTIN: Dani, you and I have talk about this too, because your kids have seen things like this and...

TUCKER: Tons of them.

MARTIN: And part of the issue is the survivor's guilt. It's like, do you get involved? Do you not get involved? Do you want to talk little bit about that?

TUCKER: Well, I teach them, you know, I teach them how to survive when they - if they're in a situation, if they see the situation, what to do. You've got to give them a battle plan first, you know, and don't - they have to be aware. I mean, my kids live in the midst of it. DeVaughn's had the same experience as your son has had, you know.

MARTIN: Don't run. Get down. So you have to go over every step. And then we have to talk about it. I know you're frustrated; I know it's hard. But you still have to go out. You still have to live. So it's a daily struggle. It's a daily battle.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're having our weekly conversation with the moms. And unfortunately, we're talking about something that is too much with us. We're talking about dealing with trauma, whether your child sees a traumatic event or sees it on the news - as tragically happened in Tucson, where a 9-year-old girl was one of the victims. And we are with our regular moms: Dani Tucker; Jolene Ivey; Sue Goodwin, who's been with us before, she's also the executive producer of TALK OF THE NATION. And also Dr. Glenn Kashurba; he's a noted child and adolescent psychiatrist who's worked with children who've witnessed and been a part of traumatic events.

Dr. Kashurba, so many things we want to talk to you about here.

KASHURBA: Sure.

MARTIN: But I am interested in what Sue's talked about here. You know, first of all, with boys - oftentimes, you know, there's a stereotype that particularly teenage boys, they don't want to talk about it. They just want to be left alone with their ear buds in their ears, you know; don't talk about it. How do you recommend that you sort of deal with that when there is something serious that's going on - you think might need to be talked about?

KASHURBA: One of the things is that each kid has their characteristic way of dealing with things. So for instance, you had mentioned my involvement with Flight 93, and part of my involvement was actually going to the crash site right after 9/11 with family members of people who had been on the plane. And watching the various kids' response to - if you can imagine what a traumatic emotional situation that was, some of that was very dependent on their age.

The younger kids tended to be much more scared, much more unsure about things. The older kids, the teenagers, especially the boys, tended to be into the anger phase and all that sort of thing. And some of that is dictated by the individual child's personality. What's important is to let them have the feelings, as one of the moms said, and also not particularly force a feeling on them.

If in the immediate aftermath of something, somebody is primarily angry, it's OK. Let them be angry - because part of what they need to do is, they need to use their usual way of dealing with things to do that. And then as time subsides from there, it's easier to be able to ask them questions. And sometimes it's easier to, you know, while catching a baseball, talk with somebody than it is necessarily - we're going to sit down and talk about this traumatic event, because that gets to be somewhat of a - sort of clinical, non- natural setting.

MARTIN: Sure. So going to the grocery store or going out to throw a ball around. You know, I have to pick up on something, though, that Dani said, which is also relevant to something Sue talked about. You know, my instinct as a parent with my two kids is to say - 'cause my kids were asking, could that happen here? Is the bad man going to come here? And, you know, I say well, he's already in jail. You know, he's not coming here. Your instinct is to protect them and say, nothing bad is going to happen to you. Daddy and I or, you know, we are going to protect you from this. But what if you know you can't? So Dr. Kashurba, I want to ask you about offering that reassurance. What level is appropriate?

KASHURBA: Yeah. The two things that I say in that regard - is one, you have to be honest with kids when they're - answering their questions. And you do need to be reassuring, but you need to be honestly reassuring. Can anyone tell our kids that something bad isn't going to happen within our families just with a motor vehicle accident in the next year? Of course not. Of course, they can't. But we can at least have a little bit more of an idea about certain things by saying, that's why we wear our seatbelts, and that's why we don't drink and drive, and that's why we don't talk on the cell phone while we're driving cars and we're very careful, and we take care of our cars. So you need the reassurance, but it can't be false reassurance - because your kids will know if it's false reassurance. There is just no way that they are going to be able to believe you - that you can totally take care of the situation.

MARTIN: Can I ask Dani: What do you tell your kids, particularly your younger daughter? I'm not going to use names here just because of, you know, the situation. But going home sometimes, she sees things. What do you tell her to do?

TUCKER: Well, there's three rules she has. Number one, if she's by herself, get on the cell phone. Even if she can't call anybody, pretend like she is. Number two, find the nearest adult. That's where you go. You walk straight there. She knows how to identify that if there's people following her - she knows that if somebody is behind you for half a block, they're following you. I teach her that. And then next thing I teach her is to get inside a store. Get inside, stay with the bus driver, always an adult. Find you a group. Never isolate yourself. And run. And run. Run to safety.

MARTIN: Don't be ashamed - afraid to run...

TUCKER: Don't be ashamed to take off.

MARTIN: ...if you need to.

TUCKER: Yes.

MARTIN: I hear you. Sue, you wanted to say something.

GOODWIN: Yeah, I wanted to mention something again, as the doctor said, is that how important it is to let kids have the feelings. And it gives them the opportunity, actually, to develop empathy for others. And this came clear to me after the Haitian earthquake. My child is part Haitian, and I'm sure many of us did not want our children to look at those pictures. Many of us couldn't stand to look at them ourselves. But we spent a lot of time, and before he went back to school I said, you know, there are Haitians at your school. And you may want to keep an eye out for that because they're probably having a tough time. And as it turned out, he did encounter someone. And he went up to that person and said, I know you're from Haiti. I know you must be feeling very bad. If you want to talk to someone, you can talk to me. And you know, I felt that by letting Chris be someone who could express his emotions, he's now able to listen to other people and listen to what they have to say. And that was remarkable.

MARTIN: Jolene, final thought?

IVEY: And also, if it's a situation where you don't have that opportunity to directly touch the person, if you feel that your kid could benefit himself or herself from actually doing something - raising money for the situation, going to church services; I mean, whatever they feel that they could do that they could participate in a positive way to help that situation.

MARTIN: Do you make them go if they don't want to go?

IVEY: Well, I don't know if I make them go. I know on 9/11, we all went to church together that night, and I don't feel like I had to make them. I felt like everybody wanted to do something, and there was nothing we could do. That was the only thing we could do - is to be together with our faith community and pray.

KASHURBA: Yeah, the very idea of doing something is very important. After 9/11 people said, gee, I wish I could do something. My own experience was the people who were able to do things - including the children around here who were able to decorate their schools for the relief workers and the families - felt much better because they actually could do an active involvement. And taking part in something is much better than doing nothing.

MARTIN: Well, that's a good place to leave this conversation for now. And it's been, actually, a fairly difficult one, more difficult than many people might imagine. And in fact, one of the things we should probably talk about in a future conversation is dealing with her own feelings around watching our kids go through this. So that's a conversation to have in the future with our moms, Dani Tucker, Sue Goodwin and Jolene Ivey. They were all here in our Washington, D.C., studio. With us on the line from his office in Somerset County, Pennsylvania, Dr. Glenn Kashurba. He's a noted child and adolescent psychiatrist who has done a lot of work with children who've experienced traumatic situations.

Thank you all so much for joining us today.

IVEY: Thanks, Michel.

KASHURBA: Thank you.

GOODWIN: Thank you.

TUCKER: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Let's talk more tomorrow.

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