How to talk to children about a shooting

Children and adults across the US are struggling to come to terms with the shock of yesterday’s deadly school shooting in Parkland, Florida.

Such violent events can have deep psychological effects on children and teenagers, and it may take months or even years for the full extent of the damage to become apparent.

Support systems – including parents, caretakers, teachers, siblings and peers – are essential to helping children understand and cope with fear and tragedy.

But violence is not familiar territory to most adults either, so experts told the Daily Mail Online the age-specific approaches that adults can take to best support children.

In the aftermath of yesterday’s deadly shooting in Florida, families search for the best ways to support their children’s psychological needs 

Children show different signs of trauma at different ages  

Preschoolers and young children may ask questions and revert to more toddler-like habits

When children are very young, their understanding of emotions – even their own – is quite limited.

So instead of telling you how they feel, you may notice behavioral changes that might seem unrelated, says Dr Priscilla Dass-Brailsford, a Georgetown University psychiatrist.

‘With children that are younger, you may see bed-wetting, crying, sadness and they may not get involved in activities they normally like,’ says Dr Dass-Brailsford.

She says that observing their behavior ‘can play an important role in identifying what the child is upset about and how to help them cope.’

For most young children, however, if they do have any questions or are struggling with emotions they do not understand, ‘the first thing the do is ask mom or dad,’ says Dr David Rettew, director of the Pediatric Psychiatry Clinic at the University of Vermont College of Medicine.

Older elementary school children and high school-ers may act depressed, but not tell you why

Older children are more likely to keep things closer to the chest or open up to their peers instead of their parents.

In them, parents and caretakers might expect to see that their teenagers and pre-teenagers are ‘not sleeping, have appetite changes, or are over-sleeping,’ says Dr Dass-Brailsford.

Some may turn to more drastic, destructive measures when faced with the lack of control and uncertainly that followed random acts of control.

In extreme cases, Dr Dass-Brailsford says adults should even be on the lookout for ‘eating disorders, antisocial behavior and feelings of anger.’

When, if and how to talk about shootings with the children in your life

If your little ones ask questions about violence, make them feel safe

Since it will probably be more obvious that a young child in your life disturbed by recent violent events in their world, Dr Rettew says that unnecessarily drawing their attention to trauma may do more harm than good.

‘When kids are elementary school age, around five- to nine-years-old, I wouldn’t bring up the subject if they don’t bring it up themselves,’ he says.

‘It’s not clear to me that there is a lot to gain from talking about mass shootings at schools with them because they are not really cognitively at a place where they can put an event like this in its proper context,’ Dr Rettew says.

But now more than ever, even the most adult material has a way of trickling down to children through siblings and media.

‘If these young children do bring it up – whether because they saw it on the news or their older siblings talked about it – engage it, listen to any misinformation they may have brought in and try to reassure them that schools are still safe places and these are very rare events…even though it may not seem like it to adults,’ he says.

Engaging children in conversation and treating their feelings as valid is key, experts agree.

‘Children that develop unhealthy coping mechanisms often feel shut down, shut out, not heard and like they don’t have a voice,’ says Dr Bethany Kassar, a licensed clinical social worker, executive director of Outpatient Services at Summit Behavioral Health in New York.

A young woman's parents stood in solidarity with her at a vigil following Wednesday's shooting 

A young woman’s parents stood in solidarity with her at a vigil following Wednesday’s shooting 

When these younger children do express fears or emotional distress, it is important to put everything in ‘more childlike terms,’ but they still ‘need concrete, specific information regarding the event.

‘Sugar-coating it may not be useful because you can’t stop children from hearing about it so its best, when they hear from adults [in their lives] that they hear the facts,’ says Dr Dass-Brailsford.

She also advises that, more than anything, ‘a younger child needs to know that [a shooting] is not going to happen again.’

Older children will already know what is happening, so ask them questions – but not to many

‘Any kid that has a smart phone connected to the internet is going to know about the shooting,’ says Dr Rettew.

On average, children now get their first smartphone around age 10. Developmentally, they may still fall into the ‘middle childhood’ stage, but as soon as a child has a phone in-hand, they have access to the on-goings of the adult world, and are aware of horrifying events like yesterday’s shooting.

So the job of parents, caregivers, older siblings or any other trusted adult is not to inform these children, but to listen to them, experts say.

Adults should ask things like: ‘What have you heard? How does it make you feel?’ before ‘launching into their own lecture. Instead, ask open-ended questions, sit back and listen,’ says Dr Rettew.

Dr Dass-Brailsford, who studies trauma, says that younger children maybe concerned with their own safety, whereas older and adolescent children tend to be more interested in the specifics of the shooting, and even ‘revenge.’

‘Adolescents are more concerned with how the shooter will be punished and if he has been apprehended,’ Dr Dass-Brailsford says.

But these aren’t particularly helpful curiosities, says Dr Rettew.

Avoid assumptions and steer the conversation toward heroes instead of the shooter 

‘Parents should deflect a lot of questions about the shooter,’ he says. ‘Everybody wants to know about the shooter, it’s natural, but I think it’s also important to have a bit of a conversation about victims and heroes.’

‘We should be talking about some of the really good parts of humanity that come out of events like this – like the teacher that sacrificed his life [yesterday] – not just the really parts of humanity that these events also bring out,’ Dr Rettew suggests.

One of those heroes was 35-year-old Scott Beigel, a social science teacher and long-time staff member at the Jewish summer Camp Starlight, where Dr Kassar’s 18-year-old son has been going for the last eight years.

Experts say that children's curiosity about the shooter is natural, but not productive

Experts say that children’s curiosity about the shooter is natural, but not productive

This morning, Dr Kassar had to have this very conversation with her son, Ian.

Ian ‘had questions about why this would happen, and the answer is that this is life, these awful things happen, and as you get older, you’re going to come across them more and more,’ Dr Kassar says.

‘Unfortunately, these are adult issues that he is now facing and dealing with,’ she adds.

Dr Kassar says that while her son is ‘more focused on that fact that he lost someone that was really important to him, younger children are probably going to be more focused on the shooting and chaos because they can’t relate so much to the emotional part of it.’

The experts also advise that adults find a balance between expressing their own thoughts and feelings about a shooting and not over-sharing.

Adults must also avoid projecting emotions onto their children, says Dr Rettew.

‘If a child is not phased or interested in having a big discussion, parents should not automatically assume that they are covering up intense emotions…just because it’s upsetting to a lot of parents, doesn’t mean that it will necessarily be upsetting to a child who’s often preoccupied with their own life,’ he says.

‘Unfortunately, the advice doesn’t change that much from one horrific event to the other, but hopefully we won’t have to be talking about this with such frequency,’ he adds.