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How To Talk To Children And Teens About Mass Shootings

Here's how parents can talk to their kids about mass shootings.

By Sowmya Krishnamurthy
Tragedy Strikes in Florida High School Shooting

On Wednesday, a former student killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. As CNN reports, the massacre is one of the deadliest mass shootings in modern history. Many parents are wondering in the aftermath, how to talk to their children and teens about mass shootings, dealing with complex emotions and safety.

According to Today, the American Psychiatric Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend that parents usually wait until the child is of a certain age of understanding, approximately 8, before broaching the topic. “If it doesn’t directly affect your family, kids under 8 do not need to hear about this,” says Dr. Deborah Gilboa. Prior to this age, children may struggle with processing the impact of a mass shooting.

However, experts recommend that if a child is likely to hear about the shooting from peers and others, they should discuss it.

Some Parkland students spoke out after the shooting to share their thoughts, fears and outrage.

With young children, Gilboa recommends keeping it simple. “You are going to give a one-sentence story to anyone under 6,” she says. Children in elementary school age have a deeper understanding, so it's important to replace the negative images they may have seen around shootings with positive ones. “Let’s see if we can replace those memories and balance it out by showing the positives and the amazing people who rushed to help,” she says.

For tweens, she recommends focusing on listening to their feelings. Teens, on the other hand, have a greater capacity for discussion and may want to get solutions. “Teenagers are looking for hypocrisy and solutions and this generation believes in collaboration and social justice. And they are going to ask ‘What are you doing,’” she explains. “You can answer and then ask ‘what are you doing? What would you like to do? What can we do together?”

When talking about something as difficult as mass shootings, experts underscore the need for honesty. According to USA Today, licensed psychotherapist Fran Sherman says it's imperative not to lie. "If it's a teen, you're going to talk to them in a different way than you'd talk to 6-year-old. Talk to them at an age-appropriate level," she says. "That's very important. And it's all about honesty. Think always: honesty."

She says that family coping skills, like prayer, can also be helpful. "If you believe in prayer, pray for safety, for peace, whatever it is you and your family do," Sherman said. "And really talk about what's going on, about the world, about their fears. They're real."

There's also the necessity to discuss safety. Parents are urged to create a family safety plan for home and school in case of an emergency. More resources on emergency planning can be found here.

[Photo: Getty Images]