Animals Key to Helping Kids Cope with Stress
AS THE NEWS CONTINUES TO UNFOLD ABOUT THE TRAGEDY IN CONNECTICUT, American Humane Association stands ready to assist in any way it can. The facts in the case are still being uncovered, but we do know that this tragedy has left at least 20 of our most precious treasures – our children – and at least seven other adults dead in the wake of one of the worst school shootings in U.S. history. As a mother of three, it breaks my heart for the families affected; this is the call no parent ever, ever wants to receive. I shared the president’s sentiment in hugging my children a little tighter when they came home from school on Friday afternoon.
Last year, in our organization’s annual report, I mentioned the compassion fatigue in this country; every day we’re inundated with horrible stories in the news where our animals and children are suffering at the hands of an unforgiving world. While organizations like American Humane Association are out there doing all they can to prevent this senselessness, unfortunately it seems we have a long way to go before our work is done.
This year was particularly stormy for our children, and while attacks like this can unfortunately never be predicted, we need to be prepared to help our children cope whenever despicable acts like this occur. Following the massacre in the movie theater in Aurora, Colorado this summer, American Humane Association shared tips on helping children understand what happened. Given that this Friday’s attack occurred in an elementary school – a place where children should feel safe no matter what – I feel it’s appropriate to share these with you again:
- Keep an eye on children’s emotional reactions. Talk to children – and just as important – listen to them. Encourage kids to express how they feel and ask if anything is worrying them.
- Regardless of age, reassure them frequently of their safety and security, and reinforce that you, local officials, and their communities are working to keep them safe. Older children may seem more capable, but can also be affected.
- Keep your descriptions to children simple and limit their exposure to graphic information. Keep to the basic facts that something bad happened but that they are safe. Use words they can understand and avoid technical details and terms such as “smoke grenades” and “sniper.”
- Limit their access to television and radio news reports since young children may have trouble processing the enormity of the experience, and sometimes believe that each news report may be a new attack.
- Be prepared for children to ask if such violence can occur to them. Do not lie but repeat that it is very unlikely and that you, their teachers and school staff are there to keep them safe.
- Watch for symptoms of stress, including clinginess, stomachaches, headaches, nightmares, trouble eating or sleeping, or changes in behavior.
- If you are concerned about the way your children are responding, consult your doctor, school counselor or local mental health professional.
- The last point is particularly important: if you feel your child needs help beyond your capacity, please do not delay in getting them the help they need.
One thing we have found over the years is that oftentimes, there’s no better therapy than what comes from an animal. Whether it’s with the family pet, a neighbor’s pet, or even a visit to the zoo, sometimes the best cure comes on four legs and is covered in fur. For years, American Humane Association’s animal-assisted therapy teams have worked to bring comfort to those in hospitals, schools, prisons, and to children of military families. One interesting observation our animal-assisted therapy handlers constantly report is that children in particular feel they can share secrets with the animals and tell them their true feelings because they believe the animal will listen and love them unconditionally.
While we may never know the motives for the shooter’s heinous actions, we do know that whenever tragedies like this arise – and, unfortunately they will again inevitably, as much as we’d like that to not be the case – we need to do all we can to help our children cope. The world can be a scary place for children, but by hugging a dog, or holding a cat, we can show them that everything’s going to be ok. The world is scary at times for all species, but the human-animal bond can help us heal.
Again, our deepest condolences go out to the families and friends of the victims in Connecticut. Please know you’ll remain in our thoughts and prayers.