All hell broke loose, it seems, while GCP was on vacation last week. Not one but TWO mass shootings, where innocent victims were targeted by deranged shooters. We experience the shock, anger, and helplessness of watching people’s lives be cut tragically short at a community festival, at the local Walmart. As adults we are shook to the core. It’s been a main focus of news coverage for the week, and it will certainly continue. How do we help our children cope with this? What do we say to them?
GCP has raised this issue before. After Newton and Charleston. After Las Vegas. After Thousand Oaks, California. After Pittsburgh. And now we must talk about El Paso and Dayton. Sadly, we just have to turn to our archives to have some ready answers.
Experts say it depends on how old our children are:
Preschool: Discuss only if your child brings it up. Since we have a great deal of control over what our preschoolers see or hear, it is possible that your little ones aren’t focused on this. No need to bring it up, and keep them away from news on the tv and other devices. But if they bring it up, tell them the very basics (“a lot of people were hurt, the men who hurt them were stopped”).
Assure them that they are safe, and that you will do everything in your power to keep them safe. This is important to say to all of your children.
Elementary School (the early years): Keep it Simple. You should proactively talk to your child about what happened, as they are likely to hear about it in school or elsewhere. Give them a brief and simple version, reassure them that they are safe and that you and the other adults in their lives are there to protect them. Remind them about the safety drills they practice in school. Ask them if they have any questions, and encourage them to come to you if they do. Don’t force them to have a conversation about it if they don’t want to but be sure to bring it up. Monitor the time they spend in front of the TV, especially if the news is on.
Later Elementary school/Middle School: Listen First, Then Talk. Ask what they have heard about it, and what they think, and let their answers guide your conversation. Correct any wildly wrong information, but give them the space to lead the discussion. Children in these ages are likely to be more focused on their safety and what they would do in case of an attack. Encourage them to focus on the number of first responders and ordinary citizens who helped the people who were hurt, and who made a very bad situation better. Talk with them about drills in school, and the importance of following instructions in school when drills happen. Talk about your emergency plans at home as well. (Good time to make some concrete plans if you haven’t already.)
High School: Address Their Concerns. Your older children will likely have been exposed to a lot of coverage of these horrific events. Discourage them from spending too much time on the media coverage with all of those graphic images. Encourage them to talk with you about how they are feeling, and to continue talking to you as the days go by. They may express concern about attending outdoor festivals or events, or going into large stores. This is certainly understandable, and you should not discourage them from expressing these thoughts. Remind them, however, while it is important to be mindful of safety concerns, it is also important to continue to live their normal lives. Talk with them about the importance of focusing on safety (and exits) whenever they are in large crowds. Make yourself available for discussion but don’t force it if your high schoolers are not overly interested in extended conversations. Follow their lead.
Continue to monitor your children’s exposure to this onslaught of information as much as you can. Also remember that your children (of all ages) will be watching your reaction as well, so try to keep your emotions in check if you are watching news about this with them. Don’t squash them and try to be stoic—it is fine (and important) to show concern, shock, sadness, you can agree that it is a scary situation. But try not to lose it during these discussions. It may be tough to have these conversations but it is important that you do.
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Here are some additional resources that you may find helpful:
How to Talk To Kids About the Mass Shootings in El Paso and Dayton: https://abcnews.go.com/GMA/News/talk-kids-mass-shootings-el-paso-dayton/story?id=64773749
“Managing Fear After Mass Violence”: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/06/parenting/parents-mass-shootings-anxiety.html