Coping Tools From a Psychiatrist: How to Talk to Children About Mass Shootings

Parent-child-talking
Image: courtesy of August de Richelieu

In light of yesterday’s horrific school shooting and the recent Buffalo supermarket tragedy, we’re all grappling with how to cope with our feelings, what actions we can take and how to talk about it with our children. There are so many questions, emotions and thoughts brought to the surface that we may not feel equipped to explain why these violent events continue to happen. 

While there isn’t a “right” way to address these situations, it’s crucial to initiate a conversation with kids who are old enough to understand what’s happening, whether they are vocal or not. Chances are they are coping with their feelings silently and the opportunity to share aloud will help with processing anxiety and trauma.

According to a report from the American Psychological Association, “As much as adults may try to avoid difficult topics, children often learn or know when something sad or scary happens. If adults don’t talk to them about it, a child may overestimate what is wrong or misunderstand adults’ silence. So, be the first to bring up the difficult topic. When parents tackle difficult conversations, they let their children know that they are available and supportive.”

While the conversation will not be easy, there are actionable steps you can take to ensure that it is productive. Dr. Nina Vasan, Chief Medical Officer at Real explains, “Often, the impulse is to sit down with your child and share a lot of information or advice. In this instance, it is helpful to start the conversation by checking in with your child and asking them what they’ve heard about what is going on. Ask guiding questions to better understand where they are.”

Image: courtesy of August de Richelieu.

Below, Dr. Vasan provides additional detailed instructions below on how to initiate these difficult conversations with your children and how to give them the space that they need to be emotional as well as recognize how your own reactions affect them.

Have an Active Conversation

Often, the impulse is to sit down with your child and share a lot of information or advice. In this instance, it is helpful to start the conversation by checking in with your child and asking them what they’ve heard about what is going on. Ask guiding questions to better understand where they are. Be open to listening as it can be more helpful than talking in this instance. Pay attention to what they are inquiring about, what are they concerned about? Ask them: What did they see? What do they understand? What do they not understand? What are their feelings? This is a good time to validate and normalize your child’s feelings. 

As adults, we may come to these conversations about our own assumptions about what they are scared about vs. what they aren’t. If we don’t listen, we can end up trying to solve for the wrong concern. 

If your kids are having trouble getting started, try asking open ended questions to get them talking. 

Keep the Conversation Age Appropriate

Sit down with each child individually so you can tailor the conversation to their thoughts and needs. This will give them the space to ask the questions they need without being influenced by siblings or friends and can help them feel safe to have the one on one attention. 

Make the conversation specific to the age and developmental level of the child you’re speaking to. What your elementary school student needs looks and sounds very different from what your high school student can engage with.

Meet the child where they are using language and examples that are appropriate for their age and understanding of the situation. For example, with younger children, using relevant movies or games to describe good vs bad can be helpful for them to conceptualize that bad things happen in the world. 

While conversations will sound and feel very different by age, don’t assume that they haven’t heard about the incident.

Make It an Ongoing Conversation

For most people, it may take weeks, months or years to process events like this. Like all of us, children need time and space to process information. Keep this an open and ongoing conversation, checking in with them from time to time.

How to Get Your Child Feeling Safe Going Back to School

First and foremost, emphasize that they are safe at home and school. And ask them what safety means to them and where they feel safe. Some children might find having a concrete safety plan in place helpful. For example, if they don’t feel safe, let them know they can always call or text you. Taking it a step further, you can agree on a word that indicates they are feeling unsafe. Let them know that when they say or text you that word, you’ll be sure to pick-up.

Ultimately, everyone processes things differently. For some people it is important to feel a deep sense of safety and for others, having a concrete plan in place feels best.

How to Become Comfortable Sending Your Child to School Again

It is completely normal for any parent or guardian to be scared, angry and worried at times like this. The world can feel very overwhelming and chaotic.

It can be helpful to understand what your school’s safety plan is. This includes understanding what kind of communication you will receive from the school and other things. In times like this, I also recommend building community with other parents in your area. Sharing your feelings and coming together in times like this can be helpful and supportive. 

Taking Action When Feeling Helpless After Repeated Shootings Across the Country

In addition to processing your own feelings related to repeated shootings, community involvement can feel incredibly supportive for some people.

If taking action feels right to you, you can think about how you want to get involved. For some people, that means thinking about how they vote or getting involved politically. For others, this means taking action locally and building community support. 

Recognizing What You’re Feeling and How It’s Triggering you

During challenging times like this, the default is to take care of your child first. However, it is important to pause to take care of yourself first. It is important to name your own emotions and fears before engaging with your children. Take the time to talk about what is coming up for you with your partner, friends and other parents in your community.

It is important to concretely process these emotions.For some people, journaling or writing down how they feel can be helpful, for some prayer or mindfulness practices brings a sense of peace, and for others talking out loud is helpful.

Be mindful of not suppressing your own feelings. And despite the recurring incidents it is important not to become numb to this. It is really important to sit with it even if it is very difficult or painful.

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