A few years ago after a school shooting, I spent much of the day contacting the parents of children I work with as a child psychologist. Specifically, I called the parents of the children who were already anxious. “When he gets home, don’t let him watch TV or go on the Internet. Just unplug this weekend,” I recall telling a parent. I reasoned that already anxious children did not need to see those images.
When we hear about mass shootings and gun violence, what’s the best approach for talking to your kids? The answer may depend on your child’s age and maturity level. The American Psychiatric Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend avoiding the topic with children until they reach a certain age – around 8, but it depends on your child.
Tips for parents after a shooting:
- Try to keep your child’s routines as normal as possible. Kids gain security from the predictability of routine, including attending school. A major change in your kids schedule or routine will signify that, in spite of what you may claim, they are not – in fact – safe. (Child thinks, “Mom said I’m okay and there is nothing to worry about, but now everybody is acting different…. Hmmmm… should I listen to what mom says or how she is behaving?”)
- Listen to your kids and allow them to express their fears and worries. Within reason, it is okay for you to express your feelings as well. Telling a child that you are “fine” when you are clearly upset will just send a confusing message. Instead, try validating the child with something like, “You know, when I saw that I was pretty upset too. What other feelings did it bring up for you?” Let your child know there is no “right” way to feel: whatever they feel is okay.
- Let your child know you will never take them anywhere where there is danger. Reassure them that you will keep them safe. Yet, parents often jump to problem solving too quickly (“Everything is fine”). Remember a lot of listening has to come before problem solving. After your child had been able to express his or her feelings (and you’ve been able to hear them), then you can provide them with some reassurance. It may help to express some active coping skills you use when upset: “When I’m upset, I like to talk to someone – just like you are talking to me right now – or I like to go for a walk. What is something else you can do to help yourself feel better?” Focus on something active that the child can control. After all, a shooting makes all of us feel helpless, and your child may need a reminder of what they can control.
- Be honest with your kids, but don’t feel like you must share all the information you’ve heard in the media. You can acknowledge what happened without going into gory details. Instead, you can redirect your child to something he or she can control, like his/her school’s safety plan (see below).
- Assure your child that there are good things happening in the world, and more good people than bad.
- Talk to your kids, if appropriate for their age and development, about the safety plans in their schools and what they’ve been taught to do in the event of gun violence at school.
Even when tragic events like mass shootings and gun violence happen far away, they still affect our children and their ability to cope and thrive. If you see the following changes, you may want to talk with a qualified professional:
- Changes in what the child likes to do (e.g., refusing to go outside, play with friends)
- Changes in appetite
- Sleep problems or increase in nightmares – especially ones with violent content
- Sharp drop in grades or ability to concentrate
- Increase in irritability: child “blowing up” about things that didn’t bother him or her before
- Increased protection of younger children in the family (e.g., keeping a watchful eye out for younger brother to make sure he doesn’t go out into the street…. Although this rarely happened before.)
- Difficulties with separation or being alone.
- With kids younger than 5, repetitive themes in the child’s play
At times, kids and teens may need counselling to help manage their anxiety and to learn to cope. You can learn more about the McKay-Dee Behavioral Health Institute, and find mental health resources at other Intermountain locations here.