Published on May 27, 2022

How to talk to our children in the aftermath of a mass shooting

How to talk to our children

Spanish version

The traumatic school shooting that took place in Uvalde, Texas, has left us all feeling uneasy. If you are a parent who is unsure about how to navigate these types of situations, Dr. Susan Swick, executive director of Ohana, has tips on how to help our children in the aftermath of a mass shooting. Traumatic incidents pose special challenges to our ability to absorb and manage terrible news. Our children are watching and listening. It is critical that we think about how we help children to make sense of this difficult event.

Turn off the news

The endless loops of disturbing footage, breathless reporting and the strident and emotional declarations and accusations bring only heat and very little light. For younger children, they can even create the impression that these horrible events are still happening. For everyone, they are activating and distressing. Turn off the news and put down (all) the phones. Focus on establishing calm at home. Spend time together by maintaining routines. Connect with your children around homework, sharing chores, or fixing dinner together. Find out what is on your children’s minds.

Be curious

Open ended questions, like “how was school?” often yield a shrug. Instead, ask your children detailed questions about specific friends, activities or classes. Then pull farther out and be curious what their friends are talking about. You can then ask if they heard about a shooting at a school or the one at a grocery store. Find out what they know, what they are have heard or assumed and what they might be wondering or worried about. Correct frank misperceptions, but try not to “talk and tell.” Instead, focus on questions and curiosity, giving them space to share what they are hearing, thinking and worried about. You don’t have to have instant answers for their questions or worries; it’s better to start by unpacking them a bit, not assuming you know just what they are worried about. Perhaps start with “what’s got you wondering/worried about that?”

Reassure, but don’t dismiss

If your younger child is worried about whether they are safe, reassure them that every adult is thinking about how to make sure every child is safe at school, the grocery store, church or any public place. Acknowledge that it is normal to feel worried, and discuss ways to manage those feelings. They can share them with you or a trusted adult at school, try a diverting activity (music or exercise) or use strategies to calm themselves internally, such as imagery or breathing exercises. Adolescents may be worried, but are likely also focused on the feelings of frustrations and injustice. Acknowledge the validity of these feelings, and give them space to sketch out the contours of the problem as they see it. Try not to get drawn into a debate with them, but imagine the other side and see if they can, also.

Acknowledge suffering and cultivate compassion

In the face of intense anguish, it is human to feel empathy. When we cannot imagine any relief from such enormous pain, it is human to want to turn away and avoid the full brunt of it. It is critical that our children learn the skills of bearing discomfort and distress, and that usually begins by co-bearing distress with a parent. If they ask about or observe grief, acknowledge it. Label the feelings others seem to be having, and that you and your child might be having. Mention that when we love someone very much, we hurt when we lose them. And that it is a mark of compassion to feel others’ pain even if we don’t know them. It is important to not brush away the fact of pain, but it is also important to offer hope that there will be healing and even joy ahead for those who are hurting now.

Be ready for serious questions

Some children will be focused on worries about others or their own safety. Others may have detailed questions about what actually happened. Curiosity is understandable, but for school-age children it is developmentally normal and how they process new, difficult or challenging material. It is good to welcome all of their questions, but the facts of a horrifying event are likely to raise their anxiety rather than deepen their understanding. Acknowledge when you don’t know the answers to their questions, and offer that the answers might only deepen our feelings of sadness or distress without helping us know how to respond.

Some children will ask about how someone could commit these acts. These are questions all of us are grappling with one way or another. Again, start with curiosity, wondering about what they have heard or are thinking. Then you might offer that over history, some people have done terrible things because they are told to and are too afraid to do the right thing (as with war crimes). Other times, people’s minds are poisoned by fear and hatred because of abuse they suffered or immersion in a racist culture.

Some children will wonder (or may hear on the news) that a gunman was mentally ill or “troubled.” It is fair to answer that any person who kills strangers is not healthy, but that does not mean that he or she had a psychiatric illness. Remember that psychiatric illnesses are common, always treatable and often curable and they are illnesses of youth. It is critical that our children hear that if they are feeling sad or scared, detached from others or having disturbing or confusing thoughts and feelings, they should not hesitate to turn to their caring adults and talk about it. Labeling these events as simply a function of mental illness increases anxiety and stigma around mental illness, already climbing in our youth. It could discourage them from reaching out to a friend they are worried about or from asking for help for themselves. It will heighten stigma and a sense of shame and secrecy among those (many) children managing these treatable illnesses. With mental illness, it is secrecy and silence that leads to poor, even tragic outcomes. So respond to their questions about it with the facts about how common and treatable these problems are, and that they cause suffering that can be treated when we ask for help.

Focus on what we might do

In the face of horror and suffering, it is healing and empowering to focus on what we might be able to do. If we can help, we feel hope. This is especially true for pre-adolescent children, who cope with challenge by getting busy, whereas adolescents may feel better by simply connecting with peers and caring adults around the feelings and the deeper questions. So always find a way to wonder with your child about what they might do that could be helpful. This may be as simple as writing cards to school children in Uvalde, Texas or Buffalo, NY. They may want to create care packages for teachers or first responders there. You can help them by looking into agencies that might be facilitating such efforts, but a money donation will not work. Adolescents should be encouraged to think about what they think would help address the underlying problems, and consider if there is anything they could imagine doing.

The ways we bear the unbearable with our children can cultivate meaningful hope. They may even light the way forward on problems that are currently overwhelming our abilities to solve them.

Does your child need help?

You’re the expert when it comes to your child’s well-being. If you notice changes in your child that concern you, or if you feel your child needs someone to talk to, reach out to Ohana for help.

Ohana offers a range of well-rounded services designed to meet youth (up to 25 years old) and families where they are. “Ohana” is a Hawaiian term that means family, in all of its forms: blood-related, adoptive, and chosen. The program’s name reflects a family-centered approach to care, commitment to serving friends and neighbors, and the need for recognition from the entire community.

Learn more about Ohana

About the Author

Dr. Susan Swick

Susan Swick, MD, MPH is the executive director of Ohana, a center for child and adolescent behavioral health at the Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula... Read more.

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