How To Talk With Your Children After a Mass Shooting

The media coverage is continuous; Lock down drills in schools are routine. You want your child to feel safe, but the reality is that mass shootings, once considered horrific anomalies, are occurring with a disturbing frequency across the nation.  It is not possible, or desirable, to completely shield your children from news reports, but how do you discuss mass shootings with them?

Following the December 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, David Schonfeld, MD , an expert in developmental and behavioral pediatrics and founder of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement, addressed this issue in an essay prepared for the Connecticut Commission on Children. This is his advice:

Don’t ignore the issue

You may find the subject of mass shootings too upsetting to discuss and prefer to avoid the issue entirely. Dr. Schonfeld advises against this, “Silence isn’t comforting in crisis situations and suggests that what has occurred is too horrible to even speak of.” Children seek to understand and without your guidance, their active imaginations may create scenarios even worse than reality.

How to begin the conversation: Determine what they already know

Ask your children to tell you what they’ve already heard and how they feel about what they know of the event. With this information, you can clear up misconceptions and provide reassurances. Explain to your children what you and officials are doing to keep them safe. For example, most schools have security measures in place. Point those out to your child. Reassure your children that they are safe and loved.

Limit media exposure

Following a mass shooting, the 24-hour news cycle replays their coverage on a continual loop. This only works to magnify the event and make it appear as if the shooting is the only thing that has happened in the world. In the aftermath of such an event, it is best to take a break from media news. Switch the channel or shut off the television altogether.

Share your own feelings with your children

What are your strategies for coping with fear and sadness? Share these with your children. Let them know these feelings are okay. Teach them to look for the good. The late Fred Rogers, beloved host of the children’s show “Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood,” tells the story of when he was a boy and would see scary things in the news.  His mother would say, “Always look for the helpers; there will always be helpers.” Rogers says, “If you look for the helpers, you’ll know there is hope.”

You don’t have to explain why these events happen

Your children don’t need in depth analysis of the issues surrounding mental health, gun control, bigotry, religious intolerance or other possible motives for these violent acts. Just acknowledge a crime has been committed and you don’t really know why.

If, after discussing the event, your child still seems excessively worried, fearful or is exhibiting out-of-character behavior, you may want to make an appointment with his or her doctor. Your child’s pediatrician can recommend a mental health expert. You may also want to reach out to the psychologist at your child’s school.