Another school shooting. How do we explain this to our kids? Sometimes it can feel like: “What can you say that you haven’t said multiple times this school year?”
In October, Jane Ripperger-Suhler, a child psychiatrist at Seton’s Texas Child Study Center, had this advice for parents about how much we should say about a shooting such as the one in Las Vegas that had happened at the time. It’s good advice for what has happened today.
We need to be careful about who is watching with TV with us and how we explain it.
“It really depends on the developmental level of the kids,” she says. Consider how you think your child will take what they see on TV, she says. “I wouldn’t watch a lot with preschooler.”
For kids already in school, you can watch some with them, but be prepared to talk about it and answer their questions. You can ask things like: “What do you think about this?” “What questions do you have?” Gage if they want to talk about it, but, she says, “I wouldn’t force them to talk about this.”
Explain things in the simplest yet factual way you can. You could say “A kid walked into a school and shot students.”
You can focus on how you are feeling, that you’re upset and that you also don’t understand why this happened, but be careful about how you are reacting. “If a parent swoons or becomes frantic, a child is going to do likewise.”
Most importantly, remind kids that they are safe; that you will keep them safe, and when they are at school, their teachers will keep them safe.
If your child seems to be fixated on what happened in these shootings, you could encourage them to draw, build something or act something out, if they don’t want to talk about it.
If they don’t seem to be able to move on after a few days, are afraid to go to school, are too scared to go to bed, are having physical symptoms of stress or behavior problems, get them help sooner rather than later, Ripperger-Suhler says.
Be especially aware if a child has experience a trauma before. Watching this scene on TV will not cause post-traumatic stress disorder, she says, but it can be more traumatic and disturbing to some kids.
Ripperger-Suhler says it’s important to go about normal life. And that normal life means going to school.
If your child expresses some fear about it, reassure them that you will keep them safe.
“Parenting is hard, and it’s really hard when all this stuff is happening,” says Julia Hoke, director of psychological services at Austin Child Guidance Center. “We have to reassure them we are safe. It’s the thing you have to do.”
You also want to be authentic and genuine, she says, but you have to put up a wall and not show them the true depths of our fear and anxiety. “They are going to take the cue from us.”
Hoke has this advice for parents whenever there is an act of violence or terror — such as shootings in public places and schools or the bombings in Austin in March — “it really depends on the age of your kid.” Very young kids might not need you to say much of anything, she says.
For older kids, give them a simplified version of what is happening. Prepare yourself for what you are going to say and check your emotions before you talk to them.
“You’re going to check your own anxiety level,” Hoke says. “Our inhibition isn’t as good when we’re feeling stressed out ourselves.”
Many kids already will know what is happening because schools will be talking about it, their friends will be talking about it, and they have access to social media. They are looking to their parents and teachers to reassure them. “Your goal in talking to your child is making sure they are feeling safe,” she says.
Don’t go into graphic or gory details. “Even with older kids, you don’t want to overshare,” she says.
That also might mean you limit their access to TV news and social media right now. You might not want to have the news running in the background at all times. You’re trying to avoid exposing kids (and really yourself, too) to a secondary trauma.
“Generally when stuff like this happens, it’s important to maintain your normal routine as much as possible,” Hoke says. That doesn’t mean you ignore what’s going on.
Give them updates, but remind them that adults and law enforcement are going to do everything they can to keep them safe, but remind them that if they see something weird with one of their friends or classmates or are concerned about one of their classmates, they should tell an adult immediately.