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In Wake Of Disney Gator Attack, Psychologist Offers Advice For Parents

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
Centers for Disease and Prevention
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

News of the toddler who was dragged into the water by an alligator at Walt Disney World Tuesday night is a parent's worst nightmare.

But the media coverage can also be frightening for children.

Kimberly Renk is an associate professor of clinical psychology at the University of Central Florida. She says parents shouldn't avoid talking to their kids about traumatic events because even very young children hear and see more than we may think.

You do have to be honest about what’s happening, even if you think that your children aren’t receiving any information about what’s happening in the news media,” she said. "There are many venues where things are going to come through whether they're at summer camp right now or talking with friends, or on social media if they're older. So that information is going to get to them somehow.”

Renk says young children also need to be reassured that this type of random event does not pose a direct threat to them.

Renk also cautions that when bad things happen to kids, some people are too quick to assign blame.

When a gorilla was killed after a toddler slipped into his habitat, critics faulted his mother-saying she should have done a better job of watching her child.

And within hours of the news of the gator attack, internet trolling had already begun.

"That's actually a common phenomenon and it’s something that we study in psychology-social psychology in particular,” she said.

Renk says having a strong emotional experience that doesn't resolve itself in any healthy way can't be a good thing.

“You know I think the message is for us to remember that if you get stuck in blaming others for what has happened it’s not going to be a real fruitful exercise."

Anonymity on the web may offer cover but Renk says when a traumatic event occurs, people need to really think about what they say and provide some kindness.

As for the family from Nebraska who were on a Disney vacation when they lost their son, Renk says all of them are going to need long-term counseling.

"It’s going to be quite important. Especially for the other children in that family.”

Copyright 2016 WUSF Public Media - WUSF 89.7

Cathy Carter is the education reporter for WUSF 89.7 and StateImpact Florida.