How Do I Talk To My Children after Weekend’s Mass Shootings?
Psychologists encourage parents to listen and watch their kids following El Paso and Dayton Deaths
In less than 24 hours, two mass shootings devastated the communities of El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio.
Sadly, these heartbreaking occurrences no longer shock us. But that doesn’t make these events any easier to talk about with our children, especially as they occur more and more often.
So, where do we go from here and how do we make sense of any of this?
Lena Zettler, director of Psychology at Cook Children’s, says parents should spend time listening and watching their kids after tragedies such as what took place over the weekend. When talking to your children, Zettler encourages parents to focus on what makes their kids safe.
“I know it seems more difficult to do, especially when something like a shooting is close to home or in our same state, but our job as parents is to reassure our kids about the ways they are safe,” Zettler said. “Sadly in this day and age, that means talking about the drills our children perform in school to protect themselves. Maybe, as a family, you have your own safety plan. Remind your children of the safe people in the world who are looking out for them, such as their parents, grandparents, teachers, police or other relatives or close family friends. A good idea, may be to sit with your child and make a list of all the safe people they know in the world.”
When talking to your children, Zettler encourages parents to focus on what makes them safe, based on their child’s specific fears. She suggest parents ask opened ended questions before providing information. For instance, with the El Paso shooting, we are hearing that racism and targeting immigrants played a role. However, don’t assume that kids have made the connection between race and this incident. Find out what they know and what scares them and address those specific issues.
For some children of color or in the LGBTQ community, racist or homophobic rhetoric among peers or on social media may cause extra fears or anxiety.
“Focus on what things make your children safe, based on their fears,” Zettler said. “Respond with your eyes, body language and words when kids express their fears. Anytime we are scared, our brains read body language and facial expressions more than words. Kids may express these fears verbally or behaviorally. Pay attention and provide reassurance when you see they need it.”
Lisa Elliott, a licensed psychologist and clinic manager of Cook Children’s Psychology Clinic, said the events of the weekend came up during most of her sessions on Monday. She reminded the children to focus what Mr. Rogers’ mother taught him, “To this day, especially in times of 'disaster,' I remember my mother's words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers ― so many caring people in this world.”
“There are always helpers in crisis and there are more helpers than there are people who do hurtful things,” Elliott said. “Today, this was once again helpful for each one of the kiddos who brought this up. We actually did an exercise where the kids looked up all the stories of those who helped people.”
Joy Crabtree, Psy.D, a licensed psychologist for Cook Children’s Behavioral Health in Southlake, said parents must set the example for their children to follow. Crabtree encourages a discussion of the events, but only if your youngest children have learned about the incident elsewhere. If they haven’t heard about it, don’t share information with them. If they already know about it, answer their questions and most importantly, reassure them as best you can.
For example, talk about the good people like the first responders who took care of the people who were hurt and everyone who worked together to make sure people were safe.
“Parents have to stay calm and cannot be glued to the TV,” Crabtree said. “If you have an elementary-aged child, and they haven’t learned the news, there’s certainly no reason to sit down with them and show them the story. There’s no need to cause fear in your children. By the time children are 7 or 8 years old, they can distinguish fact from fiction and will understand the consequences of what they are watching. If they have heard about it, take as much time as needed to sit down with them and have a discussion/answer session, providing reassurance and support. Answer their questions, but only their questions. There’s no need to add more information that may scare them even more.”
For older children, such as those in middle school and high school, Crabtree encourages parents to again determine if their child is mature enough to handle the information. If parents feel they can handle it, use the DVR as your friend during the news. Watch it with your child and pause the TV to answer questions. Gauge your child’s emotions and turn the TV off if your child becomes too emotional or the news is too intense.
The psychologists we talked to agree the recent tragedies may also be a good time to promote speaking up when your kids see a peer who is in distress. “They are not tattling. If they see a peer who is acting out things or talking about violence, speak up to a trusted adult,” Zettler said.
“It is definitely important for children and teens to speak up and say something if they have a concern, or feel someone may be making a threat, either toward themselves or someone else,” Crabtree added. “And sadly in the times we live in now, it’s also important to have general situational awareness, no matter where you are.”
For a great resource on how to speak up, visit sandyhookpromise.org.
Kids, even teens, look to parents for reassurance. Parents can express their feelings about these events, but do not make this about your feelings. Model resiliency and good coping (calming, grounded practices that could include praying, meditating, deep breathing, laughing, yoga, and exercise for instance).
After listening, ask the child what they need: it may just be a hug for now. Reach out to professionals for help if fears persist more than a few weeks.
Crabtree advises parents to watch and see if their children restrict activity. For instance, they may not want to go to school or to the playground because it is too far away from home, or simply because they are afraid. Also, notice if your child becomes withdrawn or more clingy than usual, and constantly wants to sleep in your bed. For older kids, if you see them avoiding social events or larger gatherings, that might be something to discuss.
“It is common for children to have a mild fear, but if you see an overwhelming fear, it’s important to start by talking to their pediatrician,” Crabtree said. “If it continues to be a concern, then it may be time to get professional help.”
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Cook Children's Psychology Department
Our psychology department provides therapy and diagnostic testing to children, ages 2 to 18, and behavioral consulting to their families. We engage children and adolescents in environments that are nurturing and developmentally appropriate for their specific needs. Our staff is specifically trained to work with young patients and our psychologists are board certified in child and/or adolescent psychology. To access any of our services, please contact our Intake Department by calling 682-885-3917. To expedite your call, please have your child's date of birth and insurance information ready. For emergency situations, call 911.