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Child Caring

Mom of toddler, traumatized by Newtown murders, is afraid to take son out in public

Dear Barbara,
I am the mother of a preschooler. Like all parents, I am deeply saddened and stunned by the devastating events in Newtown, CT. My son is unaware of this tragedy, and I obviously intend to keep it that way.
We are on holiday break now, but I find myself very fearful of sending him back to preschool--or even bringing him out in public at all lately. Is this a normal reaction, and is there anything that you can recommend I could do to ease my fears and feel empowered again? It is a scary world in which to live and raise a child.
Thank you in advance for any guidance.
From: Concerned toddler mom, North Shore, MA


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Dear Concerned Mom,
It is a scary world and, like you, we all feel some degree of unease from the horrible events in Newtown. That's a healthy, human response. What you're describing sounds extreme.
If we're honest, we know the world has been a scary place for some time now; my book was first published in 1999 -- before 9/11 -- and one of the chapters is titled, "Raising children in a changing, complicated and sometimes scary world." (Over the years, it's also been the most popular topic I'm asked to speak on.)
As parents, however, we can't afford the luxury to wallow in these emotions. Here's why:
(1) Children notice and absorb our emotional responses all the time, kind of like osmosis. In the wake of a crisis, they are more sensitive than usual. Having a tendency to be timid, slow-to-warm-up, even fearful, can be a personality trait, but it can also be a learned behavior. Fearfulness can be contagious.
(2) Healthy childhood development depends on feeling safe, not just at home, but in the world at large. It's one of the reasons that developmental experts tell parents to respond quickly to the cries of a newborn. You want your baby to learn from the start that the world is a safe place that will respond to his or her needs.
If you are so fearful that you can't take your child out in public -- that you are restricting his movement so he isn't playing at the park or playground or children's museum, isn't going to a child-friendly restaurant or walking in the neighborhood -- that, over time, has the ability to inhibit healthy development. Not sending him back to preschool? Here's how he's likely to interpret that: "Mom doesn't think this is a safe place for me. She's my mom. She must know."
Right now, more than ever, sticking to routines is important for your son and for you. So is reminding yourself of all the ways in which you keep your child safe. Remind him, too, even of the little things: "I always remember to put the porch light on when we leave the house in the morning because it will be dark when we come home. That keeps us safe, so we don't want to trip on the step." Talk to the director of the preschool. Tell her your fears. What can she do to allay them?
The bottom line is if you are so fearful that you can't function typically, normally, my advice is to seek professional help.
There's a book I recommended in one of my comments in Monday's post. Your son might be a bit young for it, but you might find it helpful: "Why Did It Happen? Helping children cope in a violent world," by Janice Cohn.