On Sunday, the deadliest mass shooting in modern history occurred in Las Vegas at a country-music concert. This tragedy shocked our nation as did the mass shootings in Orlando at the Pulse Nightclub, at Virginia Tech in Blackburg, Va and at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut. How do we speak to our children about these and other calamities? Every generation has them. We all felt the pain of 9-11 and the Boston bombing. My generation watched the Challenger explosion live in school. Another generation remembers when John F. Kennedy was assassinated. In addition to acts perpetrated by individuals against others, there are also the tragic natural disasters that have recently affected so many lives with Hurricanes Irma, Jose and Maria. As we remember those who lost their lives, it is important for parents to work together, whether divorced or not, to reassure our children and talk to them about tragedies like this. When our children are affected by these events, parents want to protect them. It is difficult to see our children recognize that this could happen to them or someone they love. All of these tragedies deeply effected our collective consciousness; nevertheless, these events are extremely rare and we need to reassure our children that they are unlikely to happen to them.
Here are some helpful tips for reassuring your children and providing age appropriate information.
Turn off the news. Be careful of social media as well. Listening to the same or different accounts can actually re-traumatize children. For most children, the news is not age appropriate and may be far too graphic. If you can’t turn it off, make sure that you discuss what they are seeing and how they are feeling.
Ask your children what they have heard. They may be hearing things from teachers, friends or family. They may have misheard as well. You can correct any misconceptions as well as answer questions. It is not necessary or advisable to share specific details.
Affirm your children’s feelings. It is normal to feel anxious or scared. Accept that these feelings may manifest themselves in different ways such as nightmares, trouble sleeping, crying, loss of appetite or regression. If these symptoms persist, seek professional help to process these thoughts and feelings. Fortunately, some children remain unfazed.
Empower your children. Children can take action by sending a card or letter, signing a petition, and/or raising money for victims or survivors. Depending on their maturity, children can be taught to seek shelter, hide or other appropriate advice in the case of an emergency. Know your child’s school and seek advice as to what/if they are teaching children what do in emergencies such as active shooters, breaches, fires or tornados. I would have appreciated if my twin boys’ school would have warned me the day before that they were going to do “Code Red” safety lockdown drills. Our five year old boys who had only been in Kindergarten a few weeks were more afraid because they had no advance warning. Emphasize that just like fire drills or tornado drills; these things are unlikely to happen, but everyone should be prepared.
Stay strong yourself. Model a positive attitude. Don’t show anxiety to your children. Watch what you say to other adults in front of your children. Children pay attention to our verbal and nonverbal cues and often internalize their parents’ actions and statements even when we don’t think they are listening.
Prepare for natural disasters and as well as active shooter situations. Create disaster preparedness kits and pack up important documents, medications and snuggly toys in advance of any evacuation order. In an active shooter situation, experts recommend running, hiding or fighting for adults. These fight or flight options are instinctual in many ways. While fighting may not be an option for children, children should be taught to run away or hide from gunfire. Make sure that your children memorize your full name, address and telephone number. Have a meeting location in case you get separated.
Child Development Institute “How to Talk to Kids About Tragedies in the Media”
Dr. Phil “Talking to Your Children about Tragedy”
Laura Markham, Ph.D. – Psychology Today “How to Talk with Your Child about the Tragedy in Boston”
Grace Hwang Lynch – PBS Parents “How to Help Kids Feel Safe After Tragedy”
Todd Corrillo “Run, hide, fight: how to survive an active shooter situation”