Sunday night’s mass shooting in Las Vegas was disturbing and frightening to us all.
As parents and people who work with children many of us have the understandable instinct to shield our children from this national tragedy. But how can we shield our children from the atrocity when screens and media are everywhere? We can’t.
What we can do, however, is support our children’s healthy coping with a frightening news story by calmly providing them with filtered, developmentally appropriate information about the event.
First and foremost, we need to let our children know that they are loved and safe, and that such events, while very scary, are rare and unusual. We need to share this with our children while doing our best to remain calm and steady ourselves, focused on the child’s sense of safety and wellbeing.
This is hard.
A good place to begin a conversation with children of all ages about the shooting is to simply ask them what they have already heard about it and then listen to what they have to tell you. Explain as much of what happened as children can understand developmentally and keep details to a minimum. Avoid graphic details about the tragedy. You want to provide children with enough information so that they know what has happened. Graphic information and images should be avoided.
Invite them to ask questions of their own. Let their questions guide the conversation and provide clarity and reassurance where needed. It is common for younger children to have fewer questions compared to older children. A good rule of thumb is to answer the question asked. Too often, well-intentioned grown-ups generate anxiety in their children by providing too much information. As you talk with the child, pay attention to how you are feeling, and what you think the child is feeling. Encourage the child to express their feelings, and validate those feelings. Listen carefully for any unstated concerns or fears and observe your children looking for any changes in behavior. Be prepared for your child to return to you with questions over a period of time, a few hours, days and even weeks. We want to be able to tell children something hard and true, that: “Sometimes, very bad things happen, but we are strong enough to deal with those things together.” This sends the powerful message to a child that life can be difficult but that difficulties can be managed and coped with. It is a message that is aimed at building resiliency.
Here are some suggestions about how to talk about the tragedy with children of different ages.
With children under the age of 3 years old, especially those whose exposure to media is minimal, we recommend that you NOT be the one to initiate the conversation about the shooting. However, we do encourage you to be prepared to have a conversation with them about it. If you get the sense that your child has heard or seen something about the shooting, you will want to talk with them about it. Always start by asking them what they have heard.
Given the likelihood that preschool age children will learn about the shooting, we encourage you to be the child’s source of information about the event, rather than learning about it in the media or from another child. Ask the child what they have heard and then provide them with a straightforward and accurate description of the event. With young children, grown-ups often err on the side of being too vague with what they share. If your description is too vague, children may not understand why so much is being made of the event. You want to convey to the child that it is okay if this news upsets them, and that you are there to support them.
Even with elementary school-age and adolescent children, begin your conversation by asking them what they have heard, and what questions they have about what happened. Your conversation can be guided by the child’s questions. Keep in mind that even though older children may seem more savvy and sophisticated they still will likely find the news of the shooting unsettling and need to be reassured that their upset is understandable and normal and that you are interested in their feelings and available to support them as they accommodate and cope with what has happened. With older children, it will be important to discuss images and content they will likely come across on their screens and to develop a plan minimize exposure to graphic imagery, and to share anything they come across that they find to be disturbing with you. You may also want to inquire if there is anything they would like to do in response to the tragedy. Older children often want to do something because taking an active stance makes them feel less helpless. At the same time, however, you don’t want to feel pressured to act. If they are not interested, that’s fine too.
Regardless of the child’s age, we encourage you to highlight the following points as you talk with the children in your life about the Las Vegas tragedy.
◦ Events such as what happened this week in Las Vegas are rare and unusual.
◦ Children are loved by their families and communities.
◦ Their feelings are natural and normal in such a situation.
◦ You are interested in their feelings and thoughts about the tragedy. And it is important to share them, especially their concerns.
◦ The adults in their community are trained to keep them safe and will always work hard to ensure that happens.
◦ The vast majority of people in the world are good and these people are working to make sure events such as this do not happen again.
Talking about an upsetting event like this recent shooting poses a challenge for adults, but such conversations provide an important way to convey to children that their sense of safety and wellbeing is important to those who care for them.
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