Stories of the tragic shooting that occurred in Colorado last night are likely to dominate the news and public conversations for many days to come. Even children who were not directly impacted by the events, may be unable to avoid exposure, as the nation attempts to make sense of the overwhelming news and devastating losses. Parents are left with many questions about what and how much to tell children and how to help them cope with the stress of such news.
When talking to children about a tragedy, it is important to keep the following guidelines in mind:
- Try to be in charge of what and how your child learns about the event. In general, it is a good idea to limit children’s exposure to traumatic news stories and images. While adults may desire to stay informed, it is best to turn off the television when children are present. Inquire about how teachers are handling the news with students so you can monitor their exposure at school.
- When exposure is unavoidable, provide basic information about what happened at an age appropriate level. Brief, basic facts are typically appropriate for younger children, while older children and teens may have more questions. Don’t overwhelm young children with too much information, but be sure to address questions as they arise.
- Do not assume that the child’s worries and questions are the same as your own. Each child will understand and react differently. This will vary to some extent with age or developmental level, personality and pre-existing anxiety, and the manner in which the information is presented.
- Use open-ended statements and questions such as “Tell me what you know” and “What questions do you have?” rather than “Do you understand what happened?” and “Do you have any questions?” This will help you get a better sense of the child’s understanding, worries and desire for more information.
- Acknowledge the events in a calm way and provide reassurance about the child’s own safety and security. Be honest – don’t tell children something “could never happen” to them – but minimize anxiety by talking about the relative likelihood and the isolated nature of this particular event. Focus on their parents’ and caregivers’ ability and efforts to keep them safe from harm.
- Keep your own emotions in check. Exposure to the devastating news of the shooting is upsetting and overwhelming for most adults. It is natural to be emotional at times. However, children look to their parents and other significant adults for a sense of whether or not things are “o.k.” Parents often serve as a child’s “barometer” regarding their own safety and security. It is important for parents to manage their own stress level and to have other adults to talk to about the news.
Remember that many children have a difficult time talking directly about their concerns. Be sure to look for behavioral signs that your child may be distressed. These can include increased difficulty separating from parents, sleep or appetite disturbance, toileting accidents, and withdrawal or “shutting down.” Provide the opportunity to talk about worries, without forcing the child to talk. If concerns develop, it may be appropriate to seek professional help.