WATERVILLE, Maine — Some local children exposed to media coverage about the disappearance of toddler Ayla Reynolds are growing fearful and anxious, according to an area mental health agency.
Staff at Kennebec Behavioral Health, which operates four clinics in central Maine, have reported children struggling to cope as the case stretches into its third week, said clinical director Dr. Karen Mosher.
“They’re seeing a number of children who were experiencing anxiety and fear in regard to the situation,” she said. “Some of these are children who have been exposed to a lot of media attention and drama.”
Mosher did not have specific information about the number of children or their ages.
The story has captured a national audience. Reynolds’ father, Justin DiPietro, appeared earlier this week on NBC’s “Today” show to urge the kidnapper to return the 20-month-old to her family. The toddler’s mother, Trista Reynolds, appeared on the program last week and told host Matt Lauer she was worried the girl may not be safe in her father’s care.
DiPietro reported Ayla missing from his home in Waterville on Dec. 17. He told police he had put her to bed the night before and discovered her gone the next morning. Police have declared her disappearance a crime. A $30,000 reward, the largest in state history for a missing person case, has been offered for information leading to her whereabouts.
The disappearance of a child is such a rare and trying event that parents can find it difficult to help their children cope with a shaken sense of safety, Mosher said.
“People want their children to be safe,” she said. “This kind of thing is terrifying, and people are desperate to help their children. But frightened children are not safer children.”
Parents who stay calm have the best chance of soothing kids’ fears, Mosher said.
“A lot of it has to do with reassuring children that parents are confident in their ability to keep them safe,” she said.
Mosher also recommends evaluating how much media exposure about the case is appropriate and allowing children to skip community events such as prayer vigils if they feel uncomfortable. She offers additional resources and strategies in a recent blog post.
The Waterville Police Department publicized the blog post through social media Wednesday. Mosher said Thursday she first approached police before spreading the word, to avoid interfering with or undermining the case in any way.
Waterville’s public schools, which employ some counselors from Kennebec Behavioral Health, haven’t received any reports from students or parents about anxiety in connection with the Reynolds case, according to Superintendent Eric Haley.
One fifth-grade class at the Albert S. Hall School talked to counselors when the toddler first disappeared, he said. But the discussion centered around students’ curiosity, including how Reynolds went missing and where she might be, rather than on struggles to cope with her disappearance, Haley said.
If a child continues to cry, worry, have trouble sleeping or exhibits other symptoms of distress despite parents’ best efforts, a visit to a primary care doctor is in order, Mosher said.
Kennebec Behavioral Health’s clinic in Waterville can be reached at 873-2136.