Our nation is reeling from the tragic events that occurred in Texas this week. When horrendous events like these occur, it not only leaves us shaken and mired in disbelief, but it becomes impossible to shield our children from the full reality and emotional impact of such senseless violence and loss of life. The fact that young children were among the victims makes it more difficult to process, much less discuss with our own children.
As a pediatrician, a parent, and the former owner of a Primrose school, I wanted to share some ways to approach these difficult topics with young children along with a few additional online resources for your reference.
No matter which resource you use, I encourage you to take the time to handle this tragedy in a way that works best for you and your family:
Distance. You may feel compelled to keep the television on to catch each new detail about the tragedy as it unfolds, but when it comes to young children, it’s crucial to limit their exposure to images and details whenever possible. Children (and adults, for that matter) handle shocking news better when it is not immediate in time, and when it is presented in print rather than on television or radio.
Details. Should your children happen to see or hear news of the shooting – whether on TV, online, or in conversation – take the time to sit with them to answer any questions they may have. Remember to explain what has happened in an age-appropriate way. There’s no need to share all of the gruesome details. Unless you’re addressing something your child has already heard, doing so can make the situation worse.
Safety of the people they love. For all but those whose community and friends or family members were directly affected by the tragedy, it’s best to offer immediate reassurance in any way possible. Make sure that your child knows that those people closest to them are okay. Even though it may seem obvious, explain to your child that the members of their immediate family – mom, dad, brothers and sisters – are all safe. Next, reassure your child about other important figures in your child’s life – teachers, friends, and other relatives, for example. Repeating the list of loved ones who are safe can be comforting for both you and your children. If possible, you may want to let your children talk to them on the phone, connect virtually, or visit them in person.
Structure. Especially during times of change, stress or upheaval, following a regular routine gives children a much-needed sense of structure and security. That’s why it is recommended in the face of tragedy to try and maintain your daily family schedule as best you can. If you normally go to the park or drop your child off at school, try to continue that routine.
People in charge. Assuming your child has already heard the news, you can take steps to reassure your child by reinforcing that people in authority – their teachers, the principal, police officers and even the president of the United States – are all working very hard to keep them safe. Remind your children that as their parent, you will always do everything you can to be sure that they are safe. After all, that is our primary job as parents.
Awareness of emotions. Even if children are too young to understand what is happening as a tragedy unfolds, from an early age they are acutely aware of the emotional state of their parents. Try to be calm and reassuring around your child, but know that it’s okay to acknowledge to your children (and to yourself) that you are upset or sad too. While it is okay for children to see you show emotions if you’re having a hard time controlling them, make it clear that you are not upset with your children and take the opportunity to let them know that while you may be sad, getting to hug them and hold them makes you much happier.
Patience. As you try to process this, or any other tragedy, your children, no matter how young, may show signs of distress in response – whether it is in the form of fussiness, fear, anger, nightmares or tantrums. Expect these normal reactions and be ready to ask questions and/or enlist help when necessary so you can deal with them with understanding and patience.
Mutual support. It’s especially important to pay attention to your own levels of stress and shock. If you feel, as many of us do, a sense of unreality, disbelief, or numbness – these are normal and expected responses to tragedy. Be sure that you take the time to address your own well-being as well as your children’s. If you’re having a tough time, reach out to a friend, relative, colleague, or even a health professional to share your feelings. Getting support for yourself is crucial and will help you remain calm and supportive around your children.
- American Academy of Pediatrics: Talking With Children About Tragedies & Other News Events
- American Psychological Association: “Helping Your Children Manage Distress in the Aftermath of a Shooting.”
- National Child Traumatic Stress Network School Shooting Resources
- A resource from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: “Tips for Talking to Children and Youth after Traumatic Events.”
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