After a long day of work, preoccupied with thoughts of scrambling to get dinner together, I was greeted with the news, “There’s been another shooting.” “AGAIN?!” I think. And then, “Does Rosie know? If not, do I say anything? What do I tell her?”
- The best thing you can do is to try to oversee 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, radio or social media when children are present, even if it looks like they are not paying attention.
- 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. My colleague Dr. Kelly Ross has some practical advice to help parents share news about death.
- 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 way 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” here or to them – but minimize anxiety by talking about the relative likelihood of this event. Focus on caregivers’ efforts to keep them safe from harm.
- Keep your own emotions in check. Exposure to scary news is upsetting and overwhelming for adults. It is natural to be emotional at times. However, children look to their parents and other significant adults for a sense of whether 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 levels and to have other adults to talk to about the news.
I have written this blog before. Too many times. Too many times, I have been asked to give guidance about how to talk with kids about scary events on the news. Too many times, young people have been shot or killed just going about their day, going to school, going to the grocery store, going to a religious service, or even just walking down the street or riding in a car. Twenty or ten or two, too many. The ripples of horror and anguish and fear cascade into tidal waves. We can’t promise our kids that this won’t happen to them – it’s random and unpredictable, which is what makes it so frightening. We gather up our anxieties the best we can and try to keep going, which is what we must do. We need to continue to go to school and stores and services. Even though I am tempted to try to hide myself and my family under the covers safely at home, we must continue living.
But then I think, what about the kids who hear gunshots in their neighborhoods all the time? Whose siblings and cousins and classmates suddenly are gone? Management of anxiety is about overcoming the (irrational) fears that imprison us and getting used to them so we can function. But do we really want to get used to this violence, to become desensitized to it? This time, I am not scared. I am angry. This must stop. We must get the guns out of the reach of our kids so they stop killing others and killing themselves. And we must, as parents, clinicians, and members of our community, demand that our kids get all the resources they need to be resilient in this world.
If you feel like your child is struggling particularly hard, call 314.454.8336 for additional resources and support.