In response to the increasing gun violence in the USA and specifically the tragic school shooting in Texas, here are some tips on responding to children when the unthinkable happens.
Turn the news off or limit media exposure related to the event, including social media. Explain to them that media coverage and social media technologies can increase anxiety and spread rumours.
Start a conversation. Do not assume they do not know the news. Children and teens hear more than we may want to believe. Ask what they have heard. Ask what they think happened. Ask what they feel. If they don’t want to talk, don’t push them. Instead, let them know you are available when they are ready.
Listen, listen, and listen again. Help them sort through misinterpretations they may have.
Be willing to answer their questions. Keep it age-appropriate. Young children may repeat the same question multiple times. This is part of how they process information.
Validate their feelings. It is normal to feel angry, sad, anxious, or a myriad emotions. They may tell you they feel unsafe. Keep the conversation going by asking more questions. Avoid the temptation to say, “Don’t worry, you are going to be fine.” Doing so shuts down the conversation. Stay curious.
Increase their sense of safety. Tell them that they are loved and that you (parent or significant adult) will do everything they can to love them, care for them and keep them safe always.
Focus on the actions of the heroes and helpers—the police, volunteers, first responders, medical personnel, teachers, etc. Let them know that there are caring people everywhere that they don’t even know who do their very best to keep them safe.
Remind them of plans for safety their school may have in place. Remind them that practicing shooting or lockdown skills is like a fire drill. It is designed to keep everyone safe.
Remind them they can make a difference by being kind to others and to insist their friends are also kind to each other. Teach them to stand up to bullying and tell someone. Teach them not to give bullying behaviour an audience.
Be a positive role model. Maintain a calm, reasoned presence. Keep routines so they can count on their familiar pattern of everyday life. Extra snuggles, together activities, play, and lots of verbal reassurance that you are there for them goes a long way.
Do not hesitate to reach out for professional support if you notice yourself or your children experiencing prolonged distress.
Written by Glenda Lux M.A., R. Psych