For Jessica and April: Sorrow and Determination

by Colin McNulty

If you watch the news at all you can’t have failed to notice the heart wrenching story of April Jones, the 5 year old Welsh girl who went missing on 1st October and is presumed dead.

In the same week, Jessica Ridgeway a 10 year old girl from the USA was abducted and killed and her murderer remains at large.

It is very understandable that parents who see even one of the news stories, get a sense that the world is a dangerous place and think that they should take steps to restrict their children’s movements in order to protect them from predators. But it’s always useful to remember, that if it’s on the news, what you’re seeing is a very rare event. Why? Because if it’s common place, it’s not newsworthy.

Did you know for example that in 2011 there were 1,602 children “killed or seriously injured” on the roads in the UK? That’s about 5 every single day of the year. But you rarely see that on the news, because it’s so common that it’s not news worthy. The news channels and papers are mostly interested in stories with shock value.

Because of this, watching the news completely distorts our perception of risk. That’s not to say there is no risk, but it’s important to keep risks in perspective. Measles is a perfect example: due to one rogue doctor who’s now been struck off, a fear of the MMR vaccine swept the country, and a disease that used to kill hundreds every year is now on the rise again. By 2008 the rate of measles incidents had doubled in 5 years and in 2006 the BBC reported the first child measles death for 14 years. All because the news channels love a horror story.

Whilst it would be ideal to never watch the news again, to protect our children from the fear and worry doing so can bring, that’s clearly impractical. So how do we manage our and our children’s fear when we’re exposed to the rare stories of child abduction, whilst still being mindful that there is some small risk and we need to prepare our children before we let them go out without adult supervision?

The following article deals with exactly this issue. It’s written by Irene van der Zande from Kidpower, an organisation who do fantastic work educating children and parents about how to live safely without fear, through empowerment, planning and practice. It’s the practical, actionable steps that really distinguish Kidpower’s advice and why I feel their help is useful to use here. Irene very kindly gave permission for PDR Manchester to republish her article in full:

Note from author: The article below was first written for Jessica Christine Ridgeway from Colorado, and then I learned of the tragic abduction of April Jones from Wales, who is still missing and feared murdered. This article is for all children whose lives have been stolen. For information about our services in the UK, please see our Kidpower UK website.

Twelve days ago, ten-year-old Jessica Ridgeway left home to meet a friend and walk to school. On the way, she was kidnapped and killed, and her body was found after five days of community-wide searching.  The evil person who harmed Jessica has not yet been caught, and parents and teachers are in a state of terror.

At Kidpower, our hearts are with Jessica and her loved ones. We are full of sorrow for her and for all children whose lives have been stolen. We are more determined than ever to do everything in our power to protect other kids.

When the unthinkable happens, it is normal for frightened adults to look for answers. It can be tempting to say, “If only the child or the parents had done something differently, this tragedy would have been prevented.”

The truth is, attacks are the responsibility of the attacker, not of the victims. When tragedies like this happen, we must NEVER blame a child who has been kidnapped. We must never blame the child’s loved ones. The frightening reality is that we don’t know what happened and that nothing works all the time.

Our challenge is to accept uncertainty while protecting our kids and gradually preparing them to take charge of their safety as best we can.

When a child is stolen, the community is traumatized. Adults and children who hear about the story are horrified. The horror grows if the child is killed or not found. Sometimes, upset parents with the best of intentions will accidentally traumatize their children further. This can happen when adults act helpless or overwhelmed with fear. Additional trauma can happen when adults go over the details of the attack, believing that hearing the tragic story will somehow protect a child. Focusing on what NOT to do can also increase fear without making kids safer.

Kids hear about tragedies. They hear other kids talk about it at school. They see or hear it through media. Adults worry about how to talk with children when a tragedy happens, and this is when our kids need our guidance more than ever. We can offer that guidance by making thoughtful choices about the words we say, the feelings we express, and the ways we cope with our own adult-level feelings.

If we are very upset, we can seek support for our feelings from other adults, away from our kids.  We can help protect our children’s emotional safety by acting calm. We can be careful about what we say, sparing kids the details or adult-level processing about terrifying situations.

This includes doing what we can to control what our kids hear or overhear. Helping Children Regain Emotional Safety After a Tragedy provides some guidance.

A tragedy like this breaks the Illusion of Safety by making people aware that something bad could happen even in their familiar neighborhood. Our immediate instinct to protect our kids, but we need to find effective strategies rather than knee jerk reactions.

For example, a common reaction to a kidnapping is to start driving kids to school instead of letting them walk. While increased vigilance is indeed important in cases like this, once the criminal is caught or once a few weeks have gone by and the Illusion of Safety starts to repair itself, parents often then let kids walk to school again. The problem for children is that nothing has really changed from their perspective. One day, their adults said it was unsafe to walk to school. The next day it was okay again. The result is that kids are often left confused or anxious.

In addition to providing increased protection for the short run, parents and other caring adults need to prepare children with the knowledge and skills they need to take charge of their safety while they are going to or from school – or anywhere without adult protection. These skills are easy to practice but grow stronger with time and more practice. Start now. Give your kids the gift of time to develop their own skills while you are still taking charge of their safety overall.

This free Checklist for parents,  Safety For Kids on Their Way to School, provides a tool to assess whether or not children are ready and a list of steps you can take to prepare them for more independence. Please download this PDF and share it with others.

Our Stranger Safety Resource page provides other materials for teaching kids about stranger awareness and kidnapping prevention.

In Kidpower, we teach parents and caregivers that children do not need our anxiety or our despair – but we must remember that kids DO need our protection, including from any kind of abduction. We must not let the “Illusion of Safety” stop us from being aware of the reality of potential danger no matter where we live so that we understand potential hazards, do not give independence until a child is truly ready, and know how to prepare their kids with age-appropriate awareness and skills.

With sorrow and determination for Jessica and all children whose lives have been stolen,

by Irene van der Zande, Kidpower Founder and Executive Director

With the useful advice given here by Irene, we can all learn to looking after the mental and emotional well-being of children, as well as their physical safety.

{ 0 comments… add one now }

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: