How to Talk to Kids About School Shootings (article featured in The Tennessean)

In an effort to protect our children and youth from the effects of acts of violence such as school shootings, caregivers often try to shield them from others’ reactions to the tragedy. However, avoiding the topic, minimizing children’s and adolescents’ concern and ignoring their own reactions to the situation can communicate to them that their emotions are the “wrong” way to feel. In essence, it invalidates their experience, which can be very confusing and unsettling. Children and adolescents, like adults, can be gravely affected by death and violence. They want to know why it happened, are often angry and confused and need reassurance that trusted adults will listen to them and accept their opinions, thoughts and fears about the situation.

The most important response to a child or adolescent’s shock, trauma, or grief is to listen to what they have to say. Don’t force them to talk about what happened, but do communicate to them that you will listen without interruption and commit to being nonjudgmental. Let them know that they are safe. Do not give them false information such as, “This will never happen again,” but rather let them know that people are working diligently to make their school or home a safe place. Stick to schedules and routines as much as possible. While it is important to provide the time and space to talk about what happened, it is equally important for them to have stability and predictability in order to reduce their fear and anxiety. In addition to listening to what they have to say about the tragedy, it is also imperative to follow through by comforting and supporting them.

Know that children and adolescents often show behavioral reactions to tragedy. Some children may regress and begin bed-wetting, while others may become angry and aggressive. Teenagers may withdraw from friends and family and/or stop putting forth effort at school. It is important for caregivers to discuss these behaviors with them and ask if they would like to talk about how they are feeling, as opposed to becoming increasingly strict and punitive.

It is vital to distinguish between the needs of children and adolescents. Be aware that, cognitively, they are trying to reconcile what happened in a way that makes sense to them. For example, younger children may not be able to process the magnitude of a traumatic situation, so if they are asking questions about what happened, provide a concrete, age appropriate explanation. Younger children may not be able to articulate what they are feeling and, thus, may not initially appear to be intensely affected. However, they often try to make sense of what happened in different ways, such as using pretend play or storytelling. Young children tend to see tragedy and death as short-term, so they often not fully understand the permanence of what has happened.

Dr. Steven Berkowitz, co-chair of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry’s Disaster and Trauma Committee, and Associate Professor of Psychiatry at UPenn/Director of Penn Center for Youth and Family Trauma Response and Recovery, underscored the importance of responding to different needs of children and adolescents. He emphasized that, “Children of different ages require different responses from caregiving adults. Children under 6 should be shielded from watching or listening about the events. They need to be told that adults will make them safe. School-aged children and adolescents should be encouraged to talk about what they have heard. Parents should review/watch and listen to the news with them and ensure that fact and rumor are distinguished. They need to know how rare [these events] are and that they seem so common because they are so news worthy. The most important thing that a caregiving adult can do is be supportive, listen actively and help youth become more active in activities that create safe environments.”

Dr. Allan Crisman, also co-chair of American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry’s Disaster and Trauma Committee, and Associate Professor of Psychiatry-Emeritus at The Duke Child and Family Study Center notes that, “Young children are especially affected by their parents’ own reactions and exposure to media coverage. Parents need to be calm and reassuring as well as limiting exposure to media coverage- do not keep the TV news on. Equally important is to make sure you understand what the child’s own concerns are and not jump to any conclusions about their concerns. Older children and adolescents are going to have ready access to information from social media and the news so parents will also need to be aware of basic facts themselves while also providing some focused conversation and prosocial message about helping others. This is a time when families need to be together and provide comfort to each other.”

Even when provided comfort and support by caregivers, some children develop trauma-related symptoms that warrant assessment and treatment by a mental health professional who specializes in treating trauma in children and adolescents. If a child’s reaction seems extremely intense or long-lasting, look for symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. As a rule of thumb, if you are concerned about a child or adolescent’s reaction to a traumatic situation, immediately seek help and guidance from a trusted professional.

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The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry notes thata child with PTSD may also re-experience the traumatic event by:

  • having frequent memories of the event, or in young children, play in which some or all of the trauma is repeated over and over

  • having upsetting and frightening dreams

  • acting or feeling like the experience is happening again

  • developing repeated physical or emotional symptoms when the child is reminded of the event

Children with PTSD may also show the following symptoms:

  • worry about dying at an early age

  • losing interest in activities

  • having physical symptoms such as headaches and stomachaches

  • showing more sudden and extreme emotional reactions

  • having problems falling or staying asleep

  • showing irritability or angry outbursts

  • having problems concentrating

  • acting younger than their age (for example, clingy or whiny behavior, thumbsucking)

  • showing increased alertness to the environment

  • repeating behavior that reminds them of the trauma

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