After the tragedy at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado in 1999, certainly no one could imagine that over the next 20 years, 200 more school shootings would occur. In the first 79 days of 2018 alone, there were 12 school shootings, compared to 9 over the entire year of 2017. Sadly, school shootings are becoming an epidemic in the United States. As the nation struggles to find a solution to the violence, our kids’ safety and security hang in the balance.
How you talk to your kids about these tragedies varies by age and per individual child, but it’s important to take note that both the American Psychiatric Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend avoiding the topic with children under 8. Kids under 8 have difficulty telling if the violence they’re watching at the movies or on TV is real or fantasy, which can cause great fear and anxiety. For this same reason, experts also recommend that children under 11 avoid watching the news entirely. At this young age, children’s brains have not yet developed enough to cope with violent tragedies, and exposure to these realities can be damaging psychologically.
For children over the age of 8, or if you believe your child might hear about the incident from others, first summarize the event in a single sentence. Keep in mind that your child will use your words to tell the story to themselves in their head, so choose your words carefully. What you say should also reflect your family’s beliefs and values. Speak in a calm and matter-of-fact tone of voice, as your emotional reaction will have a long lasting impact on your child, more so than your words. Children will have a lot of questions so try to stay focused on positives, such as the people that helped and the support of the community.
For pre-teens and teens, start by asking what they know. Ask how they feel, and listen carefully to what they say. If they don’t want to talk about it, that’s okay too.
Your child may want to do something to help. Discuss what you can do together to help the victims’ families, the school, or the community. Volunteering can help us cope with tragedy as we feel the positive effects of contributing and doing good for people in need.
If you or your child are struggling to cope emotionally because of an incident of mass violence, a licensed mental health professional can help. Call my office today so we can schedule an appointment to talk.