Explaining mass shootings to children is daunting, as parents try to figure out how to be honest with their child without terrifying them.
Even if your child does not live near a town affected by a tragedy, such as Las Vegas, images that they see on television or things they hear from classmates can stick with them.
And watching traumatic events on the news can produce the same feeling of panic that experiencing the events firsthand produces for some adults.
Because children are hyper-observant, the details they pick up when they hear about tragedies can eventually induce anxiety or even PTSD.
Warning signs of this disorder include a noticeable, negative change in your child’s attitude as well as violent playtime behaviors.
If your child appears to be suffering from PTSD, taking them to a trained mental health professional who can help them with their emotions is crucial, as, if they do not get the help they need, it can cause more problems for them later on in life.
Here, an expert reveals the five steps you should take – and things you should avoid – to make the process of talking about shootings with your children easier.
Some children can experience PTSD after seeing scenes from mass shootings, or other tragedies, on television (file photo)
1. TRUST YOUR GUT ON WHEN TO TALK TO THEM
Dr Owen Muir is the medical director at Brooklyn Minds, which offers children’s mental health services. He said that the age at which your child is old enough to hear about tragedies depends completely upon the individual.
‘Parents know their kids. They’re connected to their parents,’ he said, explaining that parents should feel comfortable making a decision about whether or not they need to talk to their children about tragedies.
Dr Muir stressed that this decision depends on a child’s emotional maturity and that there is no magical age at which a child is necessarily old enough to hear about a mass shooting.
2. BE HONEST
Dr Muir also emphasized that being honest with children when talking about tragedies is crucial. ‘Trying to hide that something has happened is ineffective. They know when you’re lying,’ he explained.
‘They notice Mom is depressed,’ he said, explaining that children can very easily read their parents’ emotions. Dr Muir said that refusing to acknowledge and talk about tragedies is bad for children’s mental health.
This is because when they notice their parents are distressed but their parents still refuse to talk to them about it, the feeling makes them believe that their instincts – which told them their parents were upset – are not correct.
The process can lead to children being distrustful of their own emotions, which can lead to emotional health issues on down the road, Dr Muir explained.
Furthermore, he said it is good to communicate exactly what you are feeling – even if that is fear – so that children can compare it to what they are feeling.
Dr Muir said that it is okay to say, ‘A bunch of people got shot: Mommy is not okay with that.’
Even though it seems blunt within the context of a conversation with a child, the statement can help children recognize that fear is a normal emotion during this time.
3. BE CURIOUS
Being interested in what your child has seen or heard, and how they have processed those encounters, is crucial, especially when talking to children under 10, Dr Muir said.
He advises going into a conversation about a tragic event with an open mind, wondering about what your child knows about the situation. ‘You’re never going to fail going in with curiosity,’ Dr Muir said.
He added that once you know what your child is experiencing, you can talk about their fears, emphasizing that, while what happened is scary, events such as these are rare.
WHAT IS PTSD?
While most children encounter stressful events at what point or another and quickly move on, others experience something called post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of such events.
PTSD can occur if a child is directly affected by violence or if they witness it happening to someone else.
The following are symptoms that children who have PTSD might experience:
- a need to avoid people or places associated with trauma they experienced
- intense sadness or fear
- a need to constantly look for possible threats
- angry outbursts
4. SET A GOOD EXAMPLE
Children tend to cope with tragedies in the way they see their parents coping, according to Dr Muir. For that reason, he encourages parents to be aware of how they are responding to tragic situations.
‘They see how you cope,’ Dr Muir said, adding that children are great observers but that they lack interpreting skills.
Therefore, if they see their parent drinking in response to a tragedy, they will assume that is an acceptable way to respond. But they will also follow their parent’s lead if they see them reacting constructively.
Dr Muir gave a couple of examples of ways that parents can cope in a healthy manner. One is what he refers to as radical acceptance therapy, and people can practice it by focusing on being completely realistic.
‘The idea is that you can’t change the past [and] you can’t change right now,’ he explained, added that being totally realistic, no matter how harsh reality is, can be a helpful coping mechanism.
Another technique he recommended is the tried and true practice of deep breathing. ‘Breathing low and slow and deep will calm you down,’ Dr Muir said, which can help with feelings of hopelessness and helplessness.
5. IF YOU ARE CONCERNED ABOUT YOUR CHILD, SEEK PROFESSIONAL HELP
Lastly, Dr Muir repeatedly stressed the importance of seeking help if you are worried your child may be struggling with their emotions after you have had a serious conversation.
‘Professionals do this all day, everyday,’ he said, adding that there is nothing wrong with getting them checked out just to make sure everything is fine.
Children who see terror-inducing scenes on television can experience PTSD even if they live nowhere close to the city the attack took place in.
‘Younger kids [with PTSD] act it out thorough play,’ he said, explaining that children who play with dolls might start making the dolls shoot each other or jump off buildings, which should be a tip off to parents that something is wrong.
Older children, such as those in high school, might seem easily startled or constantly negative if something is wrong. Additionally, their school performance may go down.
Dr Muir said that if your child is behaving in this way a couple of weeks after you have spoken with them about a mass shooting or other tragic event, it is imperative that you seek help so that they get assistance processing their emotions.