The TV news often brings confusing images to children's living rooms, and this week was no exception. So what does a parent say to a child who sees the story of Parker Jensen and worries that the state routinely tries to take children away from their parents?
"What's the biggest fear of a child? It's either the death of a parent or somehow being removed from a parent," says Dr. Mark Burton of Aspen Grove Counseling. "I can see where a child watching TV, seeing that, would be very fearful."
With young children who express such fears, it's best not to get into the complexities of the Jensen case — the question of whether Parker needs chemotherapy, the possible extradition of his father — says Burton, but to "take away the fear that the state will take you away for no reason." A useful thing to say to a child would be, "This case is unusual. In our family there would never be a reason to take a child away."
The parent's ability to protect the child is what a parent needs to convey, says Lindy Burton, a licensed clinical social worker who specializes in child therapy.
"The main thing is that it's very important for children to get a sense that 'my parent has power and it's my parent's job to keep me safe. . . .' The more the parent can take the power, it allows the child to stop worrying."
The issues of child removal are complicated, says psychologist Nancy Anderson. Even if you yourself think that judges or the state sometimes seek custody of children without cause, "that's a conversation you don't want to be having in front of children."
What she would do, says Anderson, is to "address it as a rule-based situation. If a judge makes a ruling, the parents have to do it, and if they don't there's a consequence. . . . The judge said 'don't do this' and they did it anyway."
For small children, says child psychologist Wilford Higashi, "begin at the child's level of understanding. . . . Say, 'Mom and Dad will always be there to protect you.' "