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TIGER TRAGEDY: Talking to Your Kids

By Jackie Burrell
Thursday, December 27th, 2007 at 4:40 pm in Parenting Issues.

Tatiana, San Francisco ZooThe Christmas Day tragedy at San Francisco Zoo hasn’t just freaked out grown-ups. Animal-loving kids have been deeply affected by the news too.

Walnut Creek psychologist Richard Freed recommends keeping a watchful eye on your youngsters, and limiting children’s – especially young children’s – exposure to the news, particularly sensational video coverage.

“Young children who view such coverage are likely to overestimate the danger of a similar incident occurring in their own lives,” he says. “Such exposure can result in serious anxiety reactions such as a sleep disturbance or separation anxiety.”

If your children have heard about the tiger attack and seem distressed, acknowledge their fears and offer reassurance. “It’s important to first find out what they know,” says Freed. “This will help you clear up any misinformation they have acquired, and will help keep you from going into unnecessary — and potentially traumatizing detail.”

“My advice with any difficult situation,” says Danville therapist Sara Denman, “is to begin the conversation by asking the child to talk about what their fear is and listen without attempting to dispel the fear. Sometimes as parents we make assumptions about what the child is afraid of that may be way off the mark. Once the child has finished discussing the fear or fears, parents can empathize with the child by saying something very simple like, ‘yes, that would be scary.’ Sometimes just being able to state their fear and being heard goes a long way to stop feeling overwhelmed by a situation.”

The next step, says Denman, is to “help ground the child in the reality of the situation. This helps children not develop more fear and helps them learn the important skill of ‘reality testing.’ This could be done in a number of ways. One example would be stating that this is the first time something like this has every happened in all the years zoos have been open. In addition, discuss with the child that the zoo authorities and police have take precautions so that something like this never happens again.”

Keep the discussion developmentally appropriate, says Freed. Younger children need reassurance, but don’t let them dwell on the issue. Be reassuring, then move the discussion on to everyday matters.

Older children still need reassurance, of course, says Freed, but they may also find it helpful to express their own thoughts about the incident. Some children may gain “greater perspective,” he says, by researching other aspects of zoos or tigers, learning how zoos raise tigers from cubs, for example, or how tigers live in the wild.

Here’s one more point we’d like to add: More details about the zoo attack are still emerging – including one theory that the victims may have taunted the tiger and unwittingly provoked the deadly attack. We may never know exactly what transpired – these young men may have been completely innocent bystanders – but families with older children and teens may want to use this terrible event as an opportunity to discuss how we treat other creatures, and our responsibilities as residents of this planet.

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