How to Talk to Kids About Mass Shootings

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In 2015, after a mass shooting I wrote a post about how to talk to anxious kids about mass shootings and other man made violence. When I originally wrote it there had been mass shootings before but they weren’t as common as they are today (makes me sick to write that) and emotionally affected kids who were already feeling unsafe at school. Today, mass shootings at schools, places of worship, bars and nightclubs, music festivals and common community areas are common. In the last 2 weeks there have been 2, and 23 people have been killed. Those are 23 people who families, friends, loved ones and communities who are left reeling in the aftermath. 

This morning I woke up to the news of a mass shooting just a few miles from my house. This morning when I dropped my kids off at school I watched and listened to news helicopters flying overhead covering the tragedy. I listened to elementary school aged kids talk about how there was a shooter who killed a lot of people in Thousand Oaks. Some understood and some of the younger ones didn’t but asked if they would be safe. I got stuck in traffic by the reunification center and watched as my community got turned into a statistic.

And now, instead of needing to explain a mass shooting to clients or help other parent’s talk to their kids about it, I had to talk to mine. I had to explain to my 4 year old why there were so many helicopters and why there were policemen and so many trucks with sticks on top (news trucks) at the library. It got me thinking that I needed to amend my original post to help everyone talk to their kids following such a tragedy.

I have left the original introductions with the dates, but some of the content in the tips have changed. As always remember that you are never alone and we are here to help. If you need help talking to your own children or help processing such senseless violence yourself please reach out. 

February 14, 2018

Let me start out by saying that this is not the post I want to be writing today. To date, I have “re-published” this post several times since it was originally written on December 3, 2015. Every time there is a school shooting, a shooting at a festival, nightclub, place of worship, or other place that society deems “safe,” I spend the day trying to wrap my head around how I’m going to address it in my work.

How can I help anxious mothers send their children off to school knowing that fearing a gunman is not irrational in today’s America. And how can they help comfort their own children who are scared? How can I look the children I work with in the eye and help them process something like what happened today in Florida?

Needless to say, I am tired of it. Something has to change, but until it does, I will continue to provide a safe place to talk about it and to support those affected.

And, if you are as tired of this as I am, consider a donation to Sandy Hook Promise, whose mission is to prevent gun-related deaths due to crime, suicide and accidental discharge so that no other parent experiences the senseless, horrific loss of their child.

So, once again here are some tips for talking to children about mass shootings and senseless violence.

(Original post about how to talk to anxious kids posted on 12/3/15 can be found here)

If you are parenting a child these days’ chances are there are times when you anticipate your child’s reaction to daily stressors. So, when mass shootings and senseless acts of violence occur you may worry about how they will affect your child and how you will explain it to them.

Most parents’ first instinct is to try to hide it. To turn off the TV, not watch the news, and not talk about it in front of your kid. While hiding the problem may seem like the easy answer, it is not the best one, and can increase your child’s sense of fear and anxiety when they learn the truth.

Instead it’s important to explain to your kids what is happening in an age appropriate way. It’s good to show them emotion. It’s how they learn empathy and emotional expression.

So, here are some tips for how to talk to kids about mass shootings and other senseless acts of violence.

Use appropriate language and concepts and tell the truth.

While it is important to be honest with your children, make sure you are doing so using age appropriate language and concepts. Children can be very literal and of course don’t have the same emotional understanding about death and violence as adults do. Don’t talk about hypothetical situations, instead talk about the actual one that occurred, how you are feeling about it and explain it in a way they will understand.

For example, this morning I had to explain it to my four year old. I told her that there were more police cars and news trucks at the library because someone hurt a lot of people last night and 12 people died. I told her that she would see more police cars today and hear more helicopters because they were helping find out what happened and make sure everyone else is safe.

This explanation gave her what she needed to know, but not more information than she was able to process.

For older school aged children who have a better understanding of the impact of violence follow their lead. Answer their questions as directly as possible and remind them to speak up if they see something out of the norm. Do not try to introduce concepts that are too complex or beyond their cognitive ability as this will increase their anxiety and decrease their sense of safety.

Be honest about your own feelings and express them.

Acts of violence make us question our safety; they scare us and make us fearful of daily activities. This type of reaction is appropriate and normal, and your children should know that. It is ok to cry. It is ok to tell them you are sad and why. Don’t feel like you can’t show emotion because it will scare them or make them ask questions. Asking questions and being tuned into your emotional frequency is a good thing! By disclosing and expressing your own feelings of sadness and fear you are helping them understand that their feelings are justified; and you are teaching them not to hold their own feelings in.

Make time to talk

Set aside time to check in. You don’t have to talk directly about the act of violence, but check in regarding their day and how they felt. This creates an opportunity for them to share their fears if they need to.

Maintain your routine.

Changing your routine because of an act of terrorism reinforces fear. It is important that you keep your routine consistent so that your children feel secure. If you have to change routines for safety reasons make sure to talk through the changes so that it doesn’t create additional worries.

And most importantly remind your child that they are loved and that you are there for them no matter what.

**Always remember to observe your child closely following a traumatic event. If their symptoms of anxiety remain increased and they are unable to cope with them on their own make sure to seek the help of a professional. If you are in the Southern California area and need help please give us a call today at (818) 917-6596.