What Do I Say to My Kids About a High Profile Shooting?

Many parents are confused about what to say to their children after a story breaks regarding a high profile shooting, This entry addresses  three qualifications, three guidelines and three questions.

Three qualifications:

1.    Most children who were free of psychiatric problems prior to being exposed to a trauma do not develop a psychiatric condition after the exposure. Children can be surprisingly resilient.

2.    Advice from mental health professionals is most effective when it supports and informs, but does not supplant, your intuition. You are one of the world’s leading experts on your child. Suggestions from experts should be filtered through that lens.

3.    Some of the suggestions below would not apply for children who were already demonstrating psychiatric symptoms or who develop such symptoms after learning about this story; for such children it would be best to consult with a mental health professional in order to develop a tailored plan.

Three guidelines:

1.    Let your children know that you are available to talk about this story but do not try to force a conversation. Children are like adults; sometimes we cope by trying to put something out of our mind. Assuming a story upsets your child, he or she might not be in the mood to talk about it at the same time as you. Following your child’s lead can communicate that you are sensitive and respectful.

2.    Try to create a venue and manner that makes it easier for your child to communicate with you. For instance, some older children might find it easier to discuss difficult feelings and thoughts while not making eye contact (e.g., while driving or during a walk) while younger children may communicate through their play. Regardless of the age range, though, it is important to not jump in too quickly with reassurances. Once we parents start self- disclosing, even if for the purpose of being reassuring, it can have a dampening effect on our child’s self-disclosure.

Once your child has finished with his or her initial statements reflect back what you’ve heard and provide empathy (e.g., “I understand why you could feel scared about going to the movies”). This may cause your child to tell you even more. When it seems that your child is finished that would be the time to offer your thoughts and feelings based on the next guideline.

3.    Let your awareness of your child’s developmental level and/or vulnerabilities guide your self-disclosure. No matter your child’s age, it is important to not say things that you do not really believe. Doing so is often ineffective and may damage your credibility. Selective truth telling would seem to be advisable; selective based upon your child’s developmental level and vulnerabilities.

For younger or vulnerable children you may want to only share those thoughts and feelings that are optimistic and positive. For older children, who are also doing well, you may choose to share some thoughts and feelings that are unpleasant. Sometimes life is painful; honestly acknowledging that, with an older child who can handle it, can be educative and facilitate a closer relationship.

Three common questions:

1. What amount of detail should I let my child know about the shooting?

This question is for parents of  preschool through early elementary school years.  (Older children are going to hear about it in one way or another anyway–e.g., TV, radio, social networking, friends–and younger children either wouldn’t understand and/or parents control access to high profile stories.) For this age group, and assuming your child is free of psychiatric symptoms, I would only share a very brief account and use the other guidelines in this entry to guide my approach. I would have three goals by initiating a discussion about this tragedy with my child. First, I would want my child to get their initial account of this story from me. This way if my child hears about it from someone else (e.g., another child) my child already has a frame for listening, instead of being presented with a perspective that I believe is ill informed or ill advised. Second, my job as a parent is to help my child to live effectively in this world which means offering gradual and age-appropriate introductions to its painful aspects. Third, it gives me the opportunity to begin practicing some of the other communication guidelines reviewed in this post, some of which are not easy and take practice (e.g., when our kids hurt we hurt worse, so we share a vulnerability to try to suppress or live in denial regarding our child’s painful feelings).

2. What do I say to my children about our safety?

Much of this will be determined by how you rationally answer this question for yourself. What do you believe are the odds that your family will experience a similar trauma? Once you have answered these questions for yourself, selective truth telling–based on the principles listed above– may be advisable.

3. Is there anything I can do to protect my children from all the fallout?

Any of the following may help:

• Metaphorically speaking: make sure you’re oxygen mask is secure before helping your child. If I am afflicted I will have a more difficult time helping my child.

• Try to maintain functional rituals and routines. Few things give a child a clearer message that life is safe than adaptive routines and rituals (e.g., maintaining the same adaptive routines at meal time, bed time, holidays, birthdays, etc.).

• Keep your child’s developmental level and wellness in mind when deciding how much he or she should have access to ongoing developments about this story in the news.

• Try to turn a sense of passivity into an active plan for healing and helping. Your family may decide to pray for the suffering, make donations, write letters, create art, and join community efforts to heal and to help.

• Maintain a healthy lifestyle for the entire family. This would include things like spending time having fun together each week and maintaining good diets and schedules for physical activity and sleep.

• If you child seems to be having a hard time adjusting, or otherwise has changed for the worse, seek out a professional consultation. Doing so may improve your child’s adjustment. To find a psychologist click here.

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