Talking to your children about tragedies such as the recent school shooting in Parkland, Florida, can seem impossibly difficult, especially when you’re still grappling with questions of your own. But, in the aftermath of the Florida shooting — in which a gunman killed 17 people and injured several more — having those tough conversations is extremely important, experts say, as they can help children sort through their feelings and begin to cope.
Afraid you don’t have all the answers? That’s OK. No one does, not even the professionals, says Nicole Beurkens, a licensed psychologist and mother of four children, from Grand Rapids, Michigan.
“But the best thing we can do is let our kids know that we want to hear from them, will focus our attention on them to listen and engage, and are there to support them through their fears and questions — even if we can’t solve them,” Beurkens says.
To help get started, we asked Beurkens and other mental-health experts for their best tips when it comes to talking to children about mass shootings, especially those that have happened in schools.
First, address your children’s safety
After a school shooting, it’s common for children to question whether they are safe at their own schools, Beurkens says. Admittedly, this is a tough question, she says, as parents can’t guarantee their children’s safety in school. Beurkens says a good approach, though, is to focus on the factors that can make safety more likely.
“It’s important to reiterate the plans their school has to keep students safe,” she says. “Remind them of the policies and procedures that you know their school has in place to help protect them in the event of a crisis.”
Beurkens says it’s also important for kids, especially those in middle and high school, to be aware of warning signs. That might be a student making comments about harming others, social media posts indicating plans to cause harm, or seeing weapons in a peer’s locker. Children need to know who to report these concerns to, and parents need to remind children that it’s important to do so regardless of what others might think of them for speaking up, Beurkens says.
Tackling one of the toughest questions: “Why would someone do this?”
Another common question that may come up in the aftermath of a tragedy is “why?” Why would someone shoot kids in school? And, why would kids do something like this?
Beurkens says she has addressed her own childrens’ questions by explaining that it’s very rare for people to commit these crimes, and that most people who have mental illness or behavior problems do not engage in this type of behavior. She says that she’s talked with her children about situations in a person’s life that could lead them to be angry and lonely, and explained that sometimes people are under the influence of substances that causes them to act in violent ways.
“The goal is not to excuse violent behavior, but to help my children understand that there are circumstances that lead people to become so mentally unstable that they commit these atrocities, while stressing that most people, even with severe mental illness or other issues, do not become violent,” Beurkens says.
Ask open-ended questions
Kelley Kitley, a Chicago psychotherapist with Serendipitous Psychotherapy and mother of four children, says she tries to practice open and honest communication with her children, and does so with a degree of caution when it comes to major events like a mass shooting. She asks open-ended questions like “Did anything come up today that you want to talk about?”
“We have these conversations as learning opportunities to talk about safety, empathy and social justice issues,” says Kitley.
Brainstorm ideas about action
When you have conversations with children about tragedies, validation, and empathy can go a long ways, says Maurie Lung, Ph.D., Licensed Mental Health Counselor and Licensed Marriage Family Therapist. “Let them cry or be angry or both,” says Lung.
Also, be curious about what your children might know, or what they think they might know, what their friends are talking about, and what they have seen on the news, Lung says.
When they are ready, brainstorm ideas for action, Lung suggests. That could include writing to lawmakers, drawing a picture for a family, or holding a fundraiser for victims. Here are more ideas and resources to help you and your family help the victims and join the fight gun against gun violence in your community.
Know your audience
When it comes to discussing mass shootings, conversations will of course differ depending on whether you’re talking with a pre-schooler or a high-school student. But, Dr. Gene Beresin, executive director of The Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at Massachusetts General Hospital, says kids of any age will want to know the answer to these three fundamental questions: “Am I safe?”; “Are you, the people who take care of me, safe?”; and “How will this affect my daily life?”
Toddlers and pre-schoolers are more disturbed by their parents’ distress than by the actual event itself, Beresin explains. They might not understand what happened or see it as more than an act on TV. They’re comforted by your actions, and they can pick up on your reactions.
Encourage school-aged children to share their feelings and concerns with you and assure them that it’s OK to feel upset. Re-assure them you’ll protect them from harm.
Teenagers may wonder what the event means for the lives they’ll lead as young adults. Concerns could center around whether they’ll be safe in college. They may also struggle with questions about justice, power, and the use of weapons, as they are issues that relate to violent events.
Be cognizant of social media and the news cycle
Don’t allow children to watch news coverage about the shooting alone, says Dr. Crystal I. Lee, psychologist and owner of LA Concierge Psychologist. If you want them to watch the news, then watch it along with them and be available to answer questions and provide explanations, she suggests. It may also be helpful to take a break from the news altogether.
Since it’s difficult to monitor social media exposure, it’s important to assume that young adults are getting several perspectives and assumptions that are fear-based, and likely not true, says Clinical psychologist, Danielle Forshee, Psy.D. and a licensed clinical social worker.
Answer their questions but don’t speculate
It’s important to provide empathy for any feeling a child brings up before reassuring them about safety, explains Laura Chackes, Psy.D., who is the owner and clinical director of The Center for Mindfulness & CBT in St. Louis. “If you jump right to reassurance, kids don’t feel like you really heard how they’re feeling or really understand where they’re coming from,” Chackes says. When answering their question, do so with facts, she says. But, don’t speculate because if your speculations don’t end up being true, it can compromise trust. “It’s OK to tell your child that these are hard questions and no one has all of the answers yet,” Chackes says.
Try movement therapy
It’s helpful to focus on sensations in the body that arise when tragedies occur, says Erica Hornthal, a clinical counselor and dance movement therapist who owns and operates Chicago Dance Therapy. “I will ask children what they are feeling and how they know they’re feeling it, and look to the body to help us intervene and help approach the feelings and emotions that come up when talking about such horrific events.” It’s important, she says, for children to feel an internal safety in order to make sense of situations outside of their control that might make them feel unsafe.
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Brittany Anas is a freelance writer who specializes in health, fitness and travel writing. She also contributes to Men’s Journal, Women’s Health, Trip Savvy, Simplemost, Orbitz, and Eat This, Not That! She spent a decade working at daily newspapers, including The Denver Post and the Daily Camera in Boulder, Colorado, and she is a former federal background investigator. In her free time, Brittany enjoys hiking with her gremlin-pot belly pig mix that the rescue described as a “Boston Terrier” and coaching youth basketball. She also works with domestic abuse survivors, helping them regain financial stability through career coaching. Follower her on Twitter and Instagram.