So many moms and dads around the country had the same reaction today — that dread in the pit of the stomach upon hearing of the mass shooting in Colorado. The fact the tragedy happened at the showing of a blockbuster movie on a summer night — a popular venue for so many young people — made the horrific incident feel even closer to home for so many parents. So as we discuss this terrible tragedy in our homes today, what should we tell the kids?
“Be truthful, but take into account the age of your child,” says Cynthia de las Fuentes, PhD, a psychologist in Austin, Texas who sees a lot of “mamis” in her practice. Dr. de las Fuentes explains there is a big difference between talking about this with a young child and a teen. If a young child overhears the news on the radio or on television, a parent can confirm the incident without going into a lot of details.
“Don’t say ‘nothing happened’ or try to distract the child, since that lack of validation between what a child has just heard and what the parent answers makes the child question his or her judgment — or question the parent’s judgment,” explains de las Fuentes. “You do not have to be overly elaborative if your child is young.”
One good way of talking about this is sharing one’s feelings with the child. A parent can say they get scared too when they hear about these things, but they can then shift the conversation to coping strategies. For example, a mother can say ‘When I get scared, I count to ten to calm myself down’ or ‘I check my surroundings to make myself feel better,’ says Dr. de las Fuentes. Showing more physical affection, especially at nighttime, is a good way to reassure children.
Teens, especially boys, might be trying to be “stoic” and will not necessarily express their fear. Parents should look out for behavioral changes and check in with their adolescents, perhaps opening the conversation by saying they admire how “calm” the teen seems, and giving them a chance to talk.
It is also important to stress these incidents are rare. “Parents can stress there are so many good people in the world, but every once in a while someone is ‘sick’ or does ‘something mean’ and bad things can happen,” says de las Fuentes. “We can also focus on how we cope; if we are people of faith, we can pray, or stress how we are part of a loving community and we are involved.”
Parents might want to use these incidents to talk about what to do in these situations. Dr. de las Fuentes says moms and dads can take the opportunity to calmly impart useful information without alarming their children and teens.
“Parents should stress that children should first protect themselves, by ducking for cover first, and by calling 911 first, not family or friends, if they have the opportunity to use a phone,” she says. The child or teen should stay on the phone with the dispatcher until told to hang up.
This might also be a good opportunity to check with local police departments or community organizations for classes on safety or prevention. Most importantly, though, is to reassure children and teens that they are not alone in their feelings.