Parents, Children and Talk About Virginia Tech

Violent tragedies, such as the massacre at Virginia Tech, are exceptionally scary for parents, who can end up passing on anxiety to their children. Dr. Sydney Spiesel, medical columnist for Slate, offers advice on how to frame frightening events for children.

ALEX COHEN, host:

Even if the FCC cracks down on fictional TV violence, there are still plenty of disturbing real images in the media. We saw many of them last week after a gunman killed 32 people and then himself at Virginia Tech.

So how do you talk to your kids about such things without creating unnecessary fear? I spoke earlier with Doctor Sydney Spiesel. He's pediatrician, father of two and grandfather of three. He's also a professor at Yale Medical School and writes for the online magazine, Slate.

I asked Syd if the anxiety parents feel about something like the recent shootings can be contagious.

Dr. SYDNEY SPIESEL (Professor, Yale Medical School; Writer, Slate): It's certainly true that children feel parental anxiety. And I think that's one of the reasons that we need to deal with it. One of the ways that people deal - a kind of bad way that people deal with anxiety is brush it under the table and not deal with it.

And I think that kids need to have parents talk about anxiety a little bit. But I certainly feel children feel parental anxiety.

COHEN: So, what kind of language would you recommend? You know, let's say, if there's a parent who's really freaked out by something that's happened in the news, but they're trying to be honest with their kids. What kind of words can you use to be honest but not incite fear, more fear?

Dr. SPIESEL: If they believe that their kids are aware of their anxiety - and kids, of course, always are - I would say to them something like, I'm sort of worried. What do you think? Does this make you worried? Does this make you anxious? What I want to do is to get the children to express their feelings because after the children express their feelings, then you can directly deal with it. You can say, well, yeah. That's something that I'd worry about, but look. This almost never happens. This is a very rare occurrence, and this is not something to deserve great anxiety.

COHEN: Syd, do you think that there's a greater sense of anxiety in our culture now than, let's say, when you were bringing up your kids, or when you were a child for that matter?

Dr. SPIESEL: Absolutely. Everyone you ask, everyone you talk to has the sense that the world is more fragile for children now. When I was a kid, I was allowed freedoms that - for example, I could take a train from the south side of Chicago downtown, a commuter train - and really, quite a young kid - to take piano lessons. Nobody would ever think of letting their kids travel in that way anymore. So some of it just has to do with greater and constant media exposure. But yeah, there's no doubt in my mind that people are much more anxious.

COHEN: There are so many things right now in the world to be afraid of or anxious about. How do you suggest parents kind of walk the line in terms of being good defenders of their children, making sure they're protecting them and keeping them safe, but not getting too overprotective?

Dr. SPIESEL: Well, you know, Alex, I'm going to challenge what you say a little bit. The truth is that children - and adults, too - are much safer then they were. We live in a society in which more and more effort - an enormous amounts of effort to keeping us safe. There are all kinds of rules and all kinds of things ranging from changes in car design and seatbelts. There's greater supervision of the quality of food. And yet - it's interesting, I talk to parents and I talk to friends, and they all believe that the world is less safe.

I mean, it is for some people, but not really in our culture. You know, in the developing world, the world - it's certainly - and there are places where it's terribly less safe for children and adults. But around us, I think most of the people that I talked to - really, if you ask them - oh, you know, they have the sense that the world is falling apart and things are less safe. I'm not sure they are. In fact, I'm sure they're not.

COHEN: That's calm and reassuring opinion from Dr. Sydney Spiesel. He's a pediatrician, and you can read his medical examiner column at Slate.com.

Thank you so much, Syd.

Dr. SPIESEL: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

COHEN: NPR's DAY TO DAY continues in just a moment.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.