In the wake of the Jessica Ridgeway tragedy, parents are asking how they can protect their children and how they can talk to their children about the event or similar tragedies if their children ask difficult questions.
Below are tips from Mountain Crest Behavioral Healthcare Center child psychologist Damond Dotson, Ph.D., LMFT, and Fort Collins Police Services to help parents deal with these difficult issues.
Keep your child safe
- Use the buddy system. Abduction attempts decline when when children are together.
- If your child walks to school, a bus stop or another location, walk the route with your child and show them safety areas or landmarks, such as stores, they can use for safety.
- Kids under 12 years old shouldn't walk alone. Younger kids can't assert themselves or recognize danger as well as older children.
- Teach kids it's ok to tell an adult "no" and that it's ok not to be polite to an adult.
- Teach kids to resist and resist hard. That often scares off an abductor.
- Teach kids to never accept a ride from any stranger, and that they should turn around and go other direction if they're approached by stranger in a car.
- Teach kids that grownups and strangers shouldn't ask kids for directions. Grownups should help kids, not ask kids for help.
- Teach kids not to accept gifts unless it's ok with their parents.
- Make sure your child's school has the appropriate emergency contact information.
- Have a plan and know it. Create a password you and your children know, and teach them not to let anyone without the password pick them up.
Talk to your child about tragedy
- Ask questions and listen to your kids' questions. The things your children are asking about will help you explain tragedy in a way that best meets their needs.
- Responses should be age appropriate. As a general rule, the younger the child, the less detail.
- Offer reassurance of what your family does to make sure everyone stays safe day-to-day. Separating your child's experience from the tragedy can be helpful.
- Shelter kids from the news. Over exposure to media images and information can increase your child's anxiety, as well as your own.
- Know that anxiety and fear may surface in other ways. A child who is struggling with fear and anxiety may show behavioral changes. Give your children opportunities to express their feelings. If you don't see a decrease in behaviors over time, seek the help of a licensed therapist.
- Manage your own anxiety. Before you talk to your children, make sure that you can speak from a place of self-control. While it's healthy to express emotion with your children, keep in mind they will take their emotional cues and look to you for comfort.
- Do something active. Drawing a picture, sending a gift, saying a prayer, or role-playing safety skills are all ways a child can take action to express and reduce anxiety following a tragedy.
- Be prepared to revisit the conversation. Children react and process information in diverse ways. Expect questions to come up out of the blue at a later time.