As school shootings continue to dominate the headlines, the question of how parents can discuss this disturbing topic with their children is becoming ever more pressing. Should parents lie to their little ones and shield them from the truth? What useful advice can a parent actually give about a horrifying event they've never experienced? What can a parent say, if anything, to help their children feel safe again when the news has constant reminders of just how unsafe the world can be?
Broaching the topic with your child can not only help them process their own emotions, but it can also ensure that they have the knowledge they need to help keep their schools and communities safe. It may not be an easy conversation for either side, but as long as parents keep a few key points in mind, such a difficult topic can be discussed in a healthy way with children of all ages.
Initiate the conversation.
Discussing such loaded topics with your child may seem like a daunting task, but experts say that it’s best for parents not to avoid uncomfortable, even painful topics, and instead be the ones to bring it up with their children — preferably, before someone else does.
“Adults should recognize that even young children generally become aware of tragic events in the news; it’s better they hear about it from those they trust and love so they see their parents and other trusted adults as people that they can turn to for information and support,” David Schonfeld, director of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, told Oxygen.com.
When fielding your child’s questions, “simple, direct, and honest responses” are best, according to guidances provided by the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement. In the event that a child is adamantly opposed to talking about what happened, the NCSCB suggests that parents do not push a conversation, but instead let the child know that their parent is available to talk whenever they may feel ready to do so.
Validate their feelings.
When faced with tragedy, there are a variety of ways children may react; anxiety and fear are both common responses to disturbing information, according to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network. Some children may seem more angry than usual and others more withdrawn, and some will react by wanting to talk about what happened constantly, according to the NCTSN. The NCTSN reports that most reactions fade over time, but it’s important to be supportive of your children as they process everything.
Schonfeld recommends encouraging your child to be open about their feelings.
“Parents should avoid telling their children that they shouldn’t be upset when something upsetting has happened,” Schonfeld said. “If children have distressing feelings (fear, sadness, etc.) they should be allowed to own those feelings and helped to deal with them.”
“If we tell people they shouldn’t be distressed we lose the opportunity to help them deal with their distress,” he continued. “And they will be reluctant to share with us their feelings in the future.”
Don't be afraid to show emotion.
Parents may instinctively try to hide their own negative feelings and put on a "brave face" when faced with upsetting news, but doing so can actually be counterproductive to helping your children process disturbing information in a healthy way.
Children can sense when their parents aren’t being genuine with them, Schonfeld said, and hiding how you feel sends the wrong message on how they should express themselves. Allowing yourself to get “choked up” or “tearful” shows children that it’s possible to be upset or feel other negative emotions but still cope with them, he explained.
“If adults appear unaffected while sharing tragic news they won’t appear genuine or they will suggest that they are unaffected, and that implies the child should also be unaffected,” he said. “If adults ‘hide’ their feelings and emotions, why should they expect children to be open about theirs? Parents and other adults should instead share some of their feelings and reactions, with an emphasis on sharing and teaching strategies for dealing with associated distress.”
In the event that a parent feels too upset about a troubling situation to have a conversation with their child, Schonfeld recommends having another trusted adult discuss the situation with the child in your stead.
Reassure your children that they are safe.
Fear is a common response to hearing frightening or otherwise disturbing news, for children and adults alike. Following a traumatic event, the American Psychology Association suggests that parents remind their children that they are protected.
“It is important to reassure children that the adults in their lives are doing everything they can to make their environment — school, home, and neighborhood — safe for them,” reads a report from the APA.
The National Association of School Psychologists recommends taking time to revisit any safety procedures that may be in place at your child’s school, and identifying a trusted adult that your child can seek for help in the event that they feel threatened or otherwise unsafe.
Approach the topic in a way that's appropriate for their age group.
In the event of a major crisis, the NCSCB suggests discussing it with children of all ages. However, difficult topics should be discussed in different ways, depending on your child’s age.
NASP recommends keeping information as simple as possible for children in the early elementary school age range, and providing easy-to-understand, concrete examples of ways that their school, community, and home are safe. Conversely, parents can expect children who are in the upper elementary and early middle school grades to ask more detailed questions, and parents should be prepared to dispel any rumors their child may have heard, according to NASP. As teenagers may be more focused on what they can personally do to help themselves and their peers feel safer, NASP recommends that parents focus on the individual actions their child can take to do so, such as following safety protocols at school and reporting suspicious behavior to the appropriate entities.
When discussing upsetting topics with children with disabilities or developmental delays, the conversation should be tailored to the specific child’s needs and abilities, which may not always be in line with their physical age, the American Academy of Pediatrics points out.
Closely monitor the media they consume.
Access to information isn’t always a good thing. For children who may not always be mature enough to handle things like graphic photos or detailed descriptions, an influx of unfiltered media can increase anxiety.
“In most cases, media coverage is not geared to children and graphic coverage is not useful even for adults,” Schonfeld said. “It’s usually better for children to be informed by parents and other trusted adults; it allows the adults to see how children are reacting to the news, answer their questions, and provide the level of detail and information that is appropriate to the child and the context. If there is a desire to share media coverage with children, consider taping it and previewing it if possible beforehand.”
Stick to your routine — to a point.
While it may be tempting to defer from your child’s usual routine in the wake of tragedy, doing so to an extreme degree is not always helpful for your child. Following the usual routine for bedtimes and mealtimes, to some degree, “allows children to view the world as more predictable and stable — a view that is often shaken after a major tragedy,” Schonfeld explained.
That being said, Schonfeld recommends that “appropriate accommodations and adaptations” be implemented when neccessary.
Depending on the situation, some children may require additional support that was previously unneeded — and that’s OK.
Don’t hesitate to seek professional help.
When should parents seek counseling, therapy, or another form of professional help for their child? Basically, when the child’s mental state seems to be seriously impacting their day-to-day functioning and continues for days at a time, Schonfeld said. “Depression, anxiety that interferes with daily functioning, significant substance use, [and] engaging in at-risk behaviors” are a few key warning signs, he explained.
But just because your child seems to be functioning adequately on their own doesn’t mean that you should hesitate to share any concerns that you may have with a professional.
“I recommend parents speak to a professional whenever they have concerns — it may be their child’s pediatrician, a school professional, or a mental health professional,” Schonfeld said. “You shouldn’t wait until there are urgent concerns about safety. We want to help children cope whenever they are having significant distress.”
[Photo: Getty Images]
Crime Time is your destination for true crime stories from around the world, breaking crime news, and information about Oxgen's original true crime shows and documentaries. Sign up for our Crime Time Newsletter and subscribe to our true crime podcast Martinis & Murder for all the best true crime content.