Jeffrey I. Dolgan, Ph.D., a senior psychologist at Children's Hospital Colorado adults can get anxious when we over-consume troubling news, and kids pick up on that.
It is important to discuss the case very simply to your children.
"Say something like, 'A very evil person did something very bad to an innocent person and we don't know why. In our world, there are some people who do good things and there are some people who do bad things. The people who do bad things are sick -- we call them predators. But there are more good people in the world than bad people,'" Dolgan said.
After explaining the case, ask your child if he or she has any questions. Try to answer them as simply as possible.
When teaching kids how to react to dangerous situations, Dolgan emphasizes the importance of role-playing and practice what to do when they feel they are in danger.
"Children, especially young children, don't always know how to apply the things they learned in the classroom to a real-life situation," he said. " Set up a situation where a fake abductor comes along and see if your child will react the way he or she should. Stop the scenario and ask your child what he should do, and applaud him if he implements the correct behavior."
Dolgan says children learn well in these role-playing situations and to practice it a few times to make an impact.
"Emphasize the importance of self-reliance, self-defense, and to scream as loud as possible if your child feels in danger. Also explain how important it is to fight back," he said.
Other topics to address could include:
• Signing your kids up for a self-defense class
• Reiterating common stranger-danger tips (e.g. don't talk to strangers, stay in a group, always tell your parents where you're going and who you're with, etc.).
• Teaching kids to be alert and pay attention to what's going on around them.
• If you give your child a cell phone for emergencies, remember to be clear about how and when to use it.
• Getting to know your neighbors, and keep an eye on who might seem suspicious.
• Talking to children about the difference between good touching and bad touching.
• Telling kids to listen to their instincts. If a situation makes them nervous or scared, leave as quickly as possible. They could go to a house where someone is home, or run into a very public area with lots of people around.
• Working with trusted neighbors to put together a big group of kids who can walk to and from school together.
Dolgan also encourages parents to recognize the differences between being protective and over-protective.
"Fear can make some parents so uncomfortable that they won't let their kids walk a few blocks or even leave the yard. Monitor your own anxiety as a parent. Realize that it's about empowering your kids to make the right decisions and be self-reliant. Teach children to do the right thing, with the right people, at the right time, for the right reasons," he said.
He stresses to keep in mind that as saddening as Jessica's story is, abductions are statistically unlikely.
For more information, visit www.childrenscolorado.org
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