When Your Child Asks You About a Mass Shooting: How to Talk to Children and Teens about Mass Shootings
This past weekend, in less than twenty four hours, there were two mass shootings. The weekend before yet another. Our children and teens are more plugged in than ever, more aware than ever. It is important to have an understanding of how to talk with them in an age-appropriate way. This includes what story to tell, how much detail to give and how to answer their questions.
Not sure how to handle the conversation? There's no one size fits all for any young person or any age, but these tips may help.
Let them lead the conversation. Depending on your child's age, they may have not heard one thing about the shooting (think early elementary or younger) or, on the opposite side of the spectrum, they could have over exposed themself already (think teens with their own technology).
If your child is younger than 7/8, and doesn’t bring up the shooting, you may not want to bring it up to them. You may end up scaring them and then having difficulty talking with them more. You may give them details they wouldn't have been exposed to otherwise. You may leave them with many more questions than answers. If they bring it up, allow them to share their feelings and to lead with any questions that they have.
If your child is 8/9 or older, they have likely been exposed to the story on their own, especially if they attend camp, daycare or school. Ask if they have heard about the shooting and what they have heard. Ask them their feelings. Ask them their thoughts. Let them lead you into the conversation that they are ready to have.
Validate their feelings. Whatever your young person is sharing, validate. Don’t tell them “you have nothing to worry about,” or “it’ll be okay.” The truth is, that isn’t the truth. It does make sense for them to be very aware of the risks that come with gun violence. It is rational that they may feel fear or anxiety related to their safety. Although you may think you are protecting them by taking away their worry, you don’t need to make these feelings go away for them, and you can't. Trying to do so could make them feel even worse they already do. Use words like “I can understand how you would feel that way,” and “It sounds like you are a feeling… sad/anxious/worried/etc.” to help them feel validated and keep lines of communication open.
Don’t lie, but be aware of how much you share. Depending on their age and what they have been exposed to, your child may know many details or just one or two. If your child asks you about a specific detail, pause, breathe, and think about what they can understand before you respond. Don’t lie to them about things, but don’t share gruesome details that could make your child more afraid. The younger the child, the shorter the sharing of details needs to be. Think about what you want to share before you talk with your child. Sharing also includes about your own feelings and thoughts, too. Think about what is appropriate to share with your child, and then save the rest for a partner, friend or adult family member. This conversation isn’t about your or your feelings or thoughts, it is about your child.
Watch what you watch. Be aware of how much the news is on around your young people. If you have the news on in front of your child, even if they are playing or doing something else, they are consuming the stories that are on the TV. When you watch the news in front of them, you have no control over the amount of times the story is shown to them or the details that are shared on the screen. Stay in control by waiting to watch the news or consume the details until your child is out of the home or asleep. Trust us, they will replay the same story and you will not miss anything. If you have a teen in your home, talk to them about how much news they are consuming and how it could be affecting them, too.
Find balance with perspective. When you are talking with your young person, find a balance in the conversation by giving them perspective. Yes, mass shootings happen and they are seemingly increasing in frequency and the length of time we are exposed to each story, but there are also many positive things going on in the world, too. Yes, people could begin shooting in public places that you and your young person are at, however you can prepare for this by having a family safety plan in place and following it when necessary. Yes, your young person could feel afraid, hurt, angry, scared, etc., but they have a family where they can share these feelings and work through them, together.
Know your own feelings. How do you feel about what is happening right now? It’s important that you know your own feelings, and that you give yourself an appropriate outlet for processing any feelings you have. The truth is, it’s a scary time to be raising kids. The truth is, a lot of different people have a lot of different feelings about what is going on, and you and your young person may feel differently about situations like mass shootings. But, the truth is, if you don’t know (or acknowledge) how you feel, then you won’t be able to create a safe space for your young person. Remember, this conversation is about them and not about you.
Talking with young people about current events, especially events such as mass shootings, can bring out many different emotions. As a parent, being on the front line of difficult conversations is especially important. Take a deep breath, get in touch with your own feelings, and then have the necessary, age appropriate conversation with your young person about mass shootings. You’ve got this!