**Editor’s note: This previously published article has been updated after this weekend’s mass shootings.
After last weekend’s mass shootings in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio, it’s more urgent than ever to talk about them with your kids—odds are, they’re more aware than you realize. If you’re not sure where to start, The Child Mind Institute has some tips for helping children of all ages cope and recover after a traumatic event.
When something terrible happens in the country and makes national news, it’s natural to want to shield kids, especially if they’re really young, from terrifying events. This is often a mistake, says Dr. David J. Schonfeld, the founder and director of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement, because chances are, even if you keep the news off and hide the headlines on your smartphone screen, your kids will hear about it somehow.
“You can’t shield them from knowing,” he says. “If you say nothing, you’re actually saying so much – that you yourself don’t know about national events, or that they’re not something you know how to talk about, or that you’re not someone your child can talk to about scary things, because you can’t help them.”
Instead, you want your child to feel the opposite of all of those things, and know that you’re always there to help, comfort and advise them, he says.
A good rule of thumb is to talk to your children when something has happened that is relevant to them and they’re bound to find out about anyway, he suggests.
So how should you approach the issue?
With young children:
“Sometimes a simple question is all you need,” says John Kelly, PhD, a member of the board of directors of the National Association of School Psychologists. “What did you hear? What do you know about what happened?”
Then you can go from there to gently fill in the blanks, without overdoing it. “Avoid vivid imagery and extra details,” adds Dr. Schonfeld—give them only the information they need, in a way they can understand.
“As a parent, you want to make sure your kids have accurate information,” says Kelly, but you don’t need to go into a long-winded explanation, because you don’t want them having fears based on misinformation. Take your cue from your child, asking what they know and how they’re feeling about it.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) says, “The underlying message for a parent to convey is, ‘It’s okay if these things bother you. We are here to support each other.’”
There are also a lot of picture books (Books for Littles has a great roundup) that can help your really young ones with understanding gun violence.
With older kids and teens:
As with younger children, you can start by asking what they’ve heard, advises Kelly. Take your cues from your child, and give them accurate and honest information. The National Child Stress Network recommends that you encourage your child to ask questions, and answer those questions directly.
But what if your child looks at you and asks, “Could this happen to me?”
That’s probably the hardest question to answer as a parent, right? Because isn’t it, after all, a lie to say 100 percent no?
“If your child says, ‘Could that happen at my school, or to me?’ what they’re really saying is, ‘Should I be worried?’” explains Dr. Schonfeld.
You can reassure your children without lying to them, explaining that this kind of thing is really, really rare, that you don’t expect it to happen in their school and that steps are being taken to protect them.
“You’re not lying when you say that schools are the safest place for your kids to be,” says Kelly.
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