In the wake of the mass shooting in Las Vegas, which resulted in 58 deaths and over 500 people injured, many parents are faced with the difficult question: How do I explain this to my child?
It’s important to remember that children look to their parents to make them feel safe, so the first step is to open the line of communication.
“I think the hardest thing for parents and other caregivers to do is to actually start the conversation, but that’s the most important thing that we do,” Robin H. Gurwitch, Ph.D., professor and clinical psychologist at Duke University Medical Center and the Center for Child and Family Health, tells PEOPLE.
“Whether they are young children or even teenagers, the message you’re giving your children is that even for something that can be so scary and devastating, I’m willing to talk about it,” she says.
Dr. Gurwitch recommends first finding out what your child already knows about the tragedy by posing the question: There was a really bad shooting in Las Vegas. What have you heard about it?
“That let’s you know where you’re starting from and it will give you the opportunity to listen to what your child may have misinterpreted or misperceived or actually just got flat-out wrong,” she says.
“It’s also important that we are honest about what we know and what we don’t know. And it’s important to be honest about our own feelings. For example, you can say, ‘This was really hard for me. It made me sad and angry, but I know lots of people are helping and we are going to be able to get through this together.’ “
Dr. Gurwitch advices that children may ask if something like this could ever happen where they live.
“The answer is: ‘People in our community are doing everything they know how to do to keep our community safe, and that’s my job and I will do everything I know how to do to make sure you are safe.’ “
“We can’t make promises because if we promise nothing bad will happen and it does, it undermines the sense of trust,” she adds.
It’s also important to tailor your conversation to your child’s age.
“An 8-year-old doesn’t need to know that this was the worst shooting in modern history, but you can tell them that there was a horrible tragedy and somebody shot and killed lots of people, but that he can never hurt anybody else again. As kids get older, they are going to ask how many people were killed. Answer with the information you know. But tell them that there are people doing everything they can to help the people that were hurt and that there is support for families.”
It’s also important to monitor children’s exposure to the media. For very young children, taking a break from the media altogether is especially important.
“Young kids don’t have a grasp of instant replay, which means that there is a continuous barrage of bullets that is happening,” Dr. Gurwitch says. “For young kids — preschool-aged— just turn it off.
“As kids get older, it’s important to limit their exposure to the media and sit down with them to talk about what they saw and ask them what they think about it.”
Dr. Gurwitch also stresses the importance of looking after your own well-being during times of tragedy.
“It’s important for adults to take a break, too,” she says. “And it’s okay for children to see us cry. What’s most important is for kids to see us wipe our tears and be okay — and not to go behind a closed door and wipe our tears and come out and have them wonder what magic happened behind the door.”
Dr. Gurwitch also advises parents to watch out for signs that a child is having difficultly processing the situation.
“You may see that children may have more difficulty separating from you and not wanting to be away from you,” she says. “They may have more worries or anxieties and ask questions repeatedly about what’s happening in the future, or they may have trouble sleeping. Be more patient and show more love in these cases.
“And if at anytime a parent is worried about how they child doing, it’s okay to ask for help. Mental health associations in your area, family physicians or clergy are all helpful resources,” she says.
The American Psychological Association also suggests these helpful tips:
- Find times when children are most likely to talk: such as when riding in the car, before dinner or at bedtime.
- Start the conversation. Let them know you are interested in them and how they are coping with the information they are getting.
- Listen to their thoughts and point of view. Don’t interrupt — allow them to express their ideas and understanding before you respond.
- Express your own opinions and ideas without putting down theirs. Acknowledge that it is okay to disagree.
- Remind them you are there for them to provide safety, comfort and support. Give them a hug.
- Disaster Distress Hotline – SAMHSA.gov
- Listen, Protect, Connect – Psychological First Aid for Teacher & Students (PDF, 2MB) – Ready.gov
- Tips for Talking With and Helping Children and Youth Cope After a Disaster or Traumatic Event – a guide for parents, caregivers, and teachers (PDF, 300KB) – SAMHSA.gov
- Helpful Hints for School Emergency Management: Psychological First Aid for Students and Teachers: Listen, Protect, Connect – Model & Teach (PDF, 430KB) – U.S. Department of Education
- Explaining the News to Our Kids – CommonSenseMedia.org
- Children & Grief: Guidance and Support Resources – Scholastic.com
- The Road to Resilience – APA.org