Wednesday, February 21, 2018

How to talk to your children following a mass shooting

Author: Danita Leblanc, LCSW-BACS, State Suicide Prevention Coordinator

Restoring a sense of safety for your children in the aftermath of a mass shooting, especially one at a school, may be difficult as a parent. Too often our children are exposed to violence that is both senseless and harmful. Many children, those living in close proximity to a tragic event, and those who will learn about the event through television, social media, or newspaper coverage, will be affected and upset.

Children and teens may react differently to the shooting depending on their age and prior experiences, and parents should expect that youth may respond in different ways, and be supportive and understanding of different reactions, even when you are having your own reactions and difficulties.

Common Reactions

Many emotions will be evoked by this tragedy – sadness, grief, helplessness, anxiety, and anger. Children who are struggling with their thoughts and feelings with the stories and images of the shooting may turn to adults for help and guidance. Knowing some of the common reactions can help you be supportive both of yourself and your children. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network recommends looking for the following reactions: 

  • Feelings of anxiety, fear, and worry about the safety of self and others
  • Fears that another shooting may occur
  • Change in behavior:
    • Increase in activity level
    • Decrease in concentration and attention
    • Increase in irritability and anger
    • Sadness, grief, and/or withdrawal
    • Radical changes in attitudes and expectations for the future
    • Increases or decreases in sleep and appetite
    • Engaging in harmful habits like drinking, using drugs, or doing things that are harmful to self or others
    • Lack of interest in usual activities, including how they spend time with friends
  • Physical complaints (headaches, stomachaches, aches, and pains)
  • Changes in school and work-related habits and behavior with peers and family
  • Staying focused on the shooting (talking repeatedly about it)
  • Strong reactions to reminders of the shooting
  • Increased sensitivity to sounds

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists such events as the type of occurrence which cause Post-traumatic Stress Disorder in children. Examples of symptoms of PTSD can be found on the CDC’s webpage, which also includes treatment options for PTSD.

Start the Conversation

It is important to talk about the shooting with your child. Not talking about it can make them seem even more threatening in your child’s mind, and silence suggests that what has occurred is too horrible even to speak about or that you do not know what has happened. With social media, it is highly unlikely that children and teenagers have not heard about it. Chances are your child has heard about it, too.

Start by asking what your child already knows about the event either from the media or from their friends. Listen carefully and try to figure out what he or she knows or believes. As he or she explains, listen for misinformation, misconceptions and underlying fears or concerns. Understand this information will change as more facts about the shooting are known.

With a high profile event of this magnitude, which can result in confusion or distress among communities across the country, it is important that parents communicate effectively with their children.

For more information on how to talk to your children about this shooting, or any other tragic event, NCTSN has compiled a list of tips to help you help your children with their thoughts and feelings, which can be found here.

Answers to some common questions

Children will undoubtedly have many questions when asking caregivers about a confusing or senseless act of mass violence.

Why do these things happen?

Often, children, like adults, want to know the motives of the people responsible for these horrible events. Past events have resulted from many causes including mental illness, rage, extreme political or religious beliefs, and hatred. Unfortunately, there usually isn’t a concrete answer to why a specific individual acted in such a way. It does not help children to have them fear groups of people who fall into any specific demographic category. Doing so only leads to discrimination, stigma, and victimization of people who are also struggling to cope with these events. More importantly, help your children understand that adults, including government authorities, work hard to identify and stop dangerous events before they ever happen.

Will this happen again and how do I keep my children safe?

Unfortunately, violent events are likely to happen again. It is important to remember that despite our awareness, random acts of violence occur rarely and does not occur in most neighborhoods. Remember that parents and professionals strive to keep our children safe yet allow them the space they need to grow and develop.

Use the guidelines that can be found here to keep your child safe.

There are a number of things you can do for your child and yourself to help restore a sense of safety in your home. A list of those things can be found here

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