“Mama, will someone shoot us when we are at church?”
It’s a valid question from an eight-year-old Texan.
Texas, Las Vegas, New York City, and more.
Dr. Sears and Dr. Spock forgot the chapter on Children Coping with Mass Shootings. What to Expect When You’re Expecting didn’t expect this conversation. Ever vigilant, Mr. Rogers didn’t let us down as he reminded us to look for the helpers.
How do we talk to kids about people dying in a small rural church less than an hour from our city? With some forethought, tragedy won’t become trauma for our children, if it’s “buffered by good, strong, and caring relationships” with the adults in their lives, according to Children’s National Health System pediatrician Dr. Lee Beers.
How we handle these difficult topics, shapes how children see and face the world. As Amy Morin, author of 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do, explains on psychologytoday.com: “The conversations you have with your kids—as well as the conversations you avoid—will impact their core beliefs about themselves, other people, and the world in general. For example, will your child decide the world is a terrifying place filled with bad people who want to hurt her? Or will she grow to believe there are a few bad people out there, but for the most part, there are good people who work hard to keep her safe?” The conversations you have and DON’T have mold them.
First and foremost, you know your children best. You know their temperament and how they’ll likely handle the information. You’ve a good idea of what info they need and how best to relay it and support them.
But, here are a few additional tips to keep in mind:
- Process your emotional response. Whether you’re first responder or parent, taking care of yourself is the first rule. Feel your feels and sort through your thoughts first.
- Consider your children’s ages. Your kids’ ages should affect how and what you share. The American Academy of Pediatrics (APA) suggests, if possible, to shield children under eight years old from these topics. I’m skeptical that this is even possible. HOWEVER, they recommend starting the discussion at home if there’s a chance they’ll hear it elsewhere. Be proactive and preemptive.
- Find out what your children already know. Ask, “Have you heard about the shooting in Texas?” If they answer yes, ask what they know to shape your discussion. Follow with, “What do you think about it?” or “How do you feel about it?” Maybe offer your thoughts or feelings. You may not realize your kids’ thoughts or beliefs until you ask.
- Reassure them they’re safe. For example, remind them the shooter is no longer able to hurt anyone. The police officers and paramedics arrived quickly.
- Encourage but don’t force talking.
- Don’t overwhelm. Small talks with repeated facts may be necessary. Use age-appropriate language with clear, simple, factual, and sensitive words.
Understandably, how you might talk to preschool-aged children differs from how you might speak with teenagers. Here are a few guidelines to help you understand how best to approach sensitive and scary topics with children from various age groups:
Preschool-aged children. Don’t bring it up, unless they’ve heard about it or will hear about it. Keep it simple and honest (e.g., “A bad/sick person hurt others. He’s been stopped. He won’t hurt anyone anymore”). Heed our beloved Mr. Rogers’ advice about looking for the helpers and focusing on the good. Remind them they’re safe. Calmly keep them away from media (e.g., “I don’t think we should watch this now”), but avoid running panicked to shut off the TV, as kids pick up your emotions. Remind them you’ll always answer any questions.
Elementary school-aged children. This group often asks the most questions. Be proactive. Address the tragedy first, to help them digest the news with you, while allowing questions. Share basic facts without gruesome details. Check in after school, before bed, and in the morning to see how they’re processing everything. Avoid photos or video of the tragedy. If they see difficult images, encourage them to talk and offer positive images of helpers, etc.
Tweens. If they’ve heard about the shooting, ask, “What do you think about it?” or “What are your feelings?” If they haven’t heard about it, you have an opportunity to tell them and frame it. One conversation can springboard to another. You may go from faith, values, to first responders and community, instead of focusing on gore and repeated emotions.
Teens. Teenage children will likely know some facts before talking with you. Ask what they know. Maybe you remember the telephone game, when the original message becomes distorted as it’s passed from one player to another. Like this game, social media can distort events. Reputable news outlets make honest mistakes when they quickly deliver information. Asking what they know lets you correct misinformation. Point out that information may change as time passes. Of course, encourage them to share their feelings. Show them empathy. Listen.
Don’t force teens to talk. Remind them you’re here, and provide opportunities for discussion.
Teenagers often ask how things can happen. They want solutions, social justice, and action. They may ask if you’re going to do something to help. It’s a good time to explore feelings, ideas, and what they’d like to do. Consider what your family can do together.
We all feel helpless. Find something that allows you and your family to feel proactive. Young children can thank an EMS responder or help write a thank you note to a police officer. They can donate their allowance to a related fund. Older kids can organize a small fundraiser. When people of all ages do something, they feel less helpless with more control over their world. We can ALL be Mr. Rogers’ helpers.
In a world of 24-hour news, it’s hard to break away. We might miss something. We get caught in repetitive emotions. We ask, “What if it were us?” Address this with older kids. Limit exposure. Discuss why self-limiting exposure is important. Exposure—again and again and again and again—can become stressful, traumatic, and escalate emotions. Show older children how to limit their exposure.
Be careful about sharing ideas of political or religious motives. Young children may not know how to process this. Instead, ask older children and teens why they think a person becomes a shooter. Carefully share your ideas without forming or reinforcing pre-existing stereotypes. Use discretion regarding the term “mental illness.” Most people struggling with mental illness don’t become killers. I don’t want my children afraid of people with mental illnesses. And, if they’re struggling with depression or anxiety (which are mental illnesses) or something similar, I want them to confidently seek help. I don’t want them to believe they’re bad.
Be real. Velveteen Rabbit real. When appropriate, share your feelings: scary, confused, or grief-stricken. My older children saw me cry this weekend. Kids should know their feelings are normal.
Just do it. Jump in and talk. What’s unsaid can be more frightening than what’s said. Parents who are upfront and straight-forward about these tragedies tend to have children who do better than parents who try to hide such news.
If you’re caught off-guard or unprepared with questions, buy time. It’s perfectly acceptable to say, “That’s a great question. I’d like a few minutes to think about it and give you a good answer.”
Remind them that adults, including authorities and people in government, work hard to find and stop tragedies from happening again. Identify adults available for support, such as school counselors, family, friends, teachers, or coaches your child can talk to. Parenting is easier when we can rely on others to share in shaping our children.
Don’t be afraid to talk with other adults about how you’re handling things. Don’t hesitate to seek help if you or your children are feeling overly anxious, worried, or have trouble focusing. This stuff is NOT and should not be normal.
Keep checking in with your kids. By now you know the best conversations don’t stop. They come in snippets—often at inconvenient times. Over the next several days and weeks, briefly bring it up at breakfast, after school, in the car, during homework, and before bed.
In the end, we decide what messages we want to shape our children’s lives. I like “bad things happen, but there are good people out there helping, and we’re strong enough to get through it.” I want my kids to be resilient, mentally strong, and know they’ll find a way to deal with the hard parts of life. I also don’t want to normalize these tragedies. I’ll find the goodness in others. I’ll point out people setting their differences aside to pull together during traumatic times. This helps build resilience and find action amidst helplessness.
“Mams, will someone shoot us when we are at church?”
“Are you asking because of the news that came on after Dad’s football game?”
“That’s pretty scary, isn’t it? Come sit by me and tell me what you heard about it.”