16 Tips for Talking With Children After a School Shooting
How we can try to navigate the new normal following another tragedy.
Posted May 19, 2018
Following the Santa Fe High School shooting that occurred this week, parents will be wondering what to say to their children. Advice about how to talk with youths following school shootings is easily found on the internet. I agree with much of the advice, but I disagree with some of it, and I found some important concepts missing. The following suggestions are based on my experience of research studies with over 600 children and adolescents who have been exposed to multiple types of life-threatening traumatic events.
1. People need information.
Most of the advice you’ll find on the internet warns parents to limit their children’s access to media. That’s not necessarily sound advice. If you are a parent of a teen with a smartphone these days, you know that limiting their access to media is unlikely and can turn into an unnecessary control battle. Instead, try to have discussions about what your children are listening to and watching. Ask to watch it with them, or ask what they’re watching and then you go watch it yourself so you can talk about it later. People need to process what they just went through and put the experience into context.
2. Crisis calls for closeness.
If you can take off from work and stay at home with your children, consider doing that. They can’t lean on you if you’re not there. If you can’t stay at home, or your children want to be out with their peers, check in with them by phone occasionally.
3. You’re important as parents, but you’re not their peer group.
All the texting and chatting youths do with their faces buried in their phones is about connecting with their clan. As Judith Rich Harris explained so well in her book The Nurture Assumption, the peer group is an important shaper of children. Parents do matter, but children identify with their classmates and playmates rather than their parents.
4. What exactly did they experience?
At some point, maybe not right away, you need to know what your own children experienced. Because many youths will develop posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after these types of events, you need to know if your children are at risk for that. If your children felt like their lives were in danger, or their siblings or close friends were in danger, they are at higher risk for developing PTSD. You do not need to know all of the unpleasant details, but you need to know general classes of things. Did they see the shooter? Did they see someone get shot? Did they see the bodies? How did they hide or escape? Did they know the victims?
It is important for parents to know these things because research has shown that clinicians miss the diagnosis of PTSD 90% of the time in patients who have it. If your children develop PTSD, detection of the symptoms will largely be up to you. (Free questionnaires to assess PTSD can be downloaded from my Scheeringa Lab website.)
Fortunately, most individuals are resilient. Research has shown that among those who are exposed to life-threatening events, about 70% are resilient and do not develop PTSD.
5. It’s almost always good to talk about it.
But when you talk about the events with your children, it can be good to ask yourself what you’re trying to achieve. It is likely to be helpful talk if you are helping them gather information and process their thoughts and feelings. It may not be helpful talk, however, if you're trying to make them feel better, because expecting individuals to “feel better” right after a tragedy like this is probably unrealistic. Think of the girl Riley in the animated movie Inside Out—crying can be good. Riley needed to be in touch with her depression in order to deal with her life stressors.
Also, it may not be helpful talk if you are trying to make yourself feel better. Sharing your own worries, thoughts, and feelings often seems helpful, but realize that if you’re doing all the talking, it may be counterproductive.
Don’t worry too much if they don’t talk right away. They may bring it up on their own later.
6. Asking questions versus making statements.
Each time you feel like asking a question, re-phrase it as a statement, and this will likely have a better effect to get your children to open up. Realize that every question is a demand for a response from the other person. Youths already have demands placed upon them by adults all day. Adolescents bristle at being asked questions because it represents an adult placing yet another demand on them. Turning questions into statements is incredibly difficult for most people. It takes practice. Steve Kroft, the correspondent for 60 Minutes, has mastered the art, if you want to watch examples.
7. Admit your own distress.
Children often hold back their thoughts and feelings because they don’t want to upset their parents. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen that happen. A good way around this is to be straightforward. If you’re upset, admit it first. When children see that their parents can handle admitting their own distress, children will feel more comfortable.
8. Sometimes less is more.
Take your cues from your children. If they don’t want to talk about it, then let it drop. People cope in different ways, and some children may do better when not pushed to talk. There is no “right” way to talk about these experiences.
9. Tell the truth as much as possible.
Children’s imagination is usually worse than the truth. If you can’t answer a question, let them know that, and that you will try to figure out an answer for them.
10. Are they safe or not safe?
Much of the advice I found online was to reassure children that they are safe because these school shootings are rare or that security at their school will likely be increased in reaction to the latest shooting. Children already know that a shooting at their school is possible. They just watched it at yet another school where students believed it couldn’t possibly happen at their school. The cat is out of the bag. They don’t want to know the odds. They want a plan in case it does happen.
11. Don’t tell someone in a panic to “calm down.”
I commonly see great parents who realize it's not helpful to tell their children to “just calm down.” If they could calm down they would have done that already. It often works better to validate their feeling by saying, “Yes, it’s scary. Let’s figure out how to make it less scary.” Also, avoid saying, “Everything will be OK.” Give children more credit. A trauma happened; everything is not OK. Your acceptance of that can be validating for them.
12. Increase their sense of safety.
This may include letting them sleep with you, staying home from work, and asking them directly what would help them feel safe.
13. Pay attention to triggers.
Become sensitized to your children’s internal worlds. Pay attention to reminders in the environment that seem to trigger their distress. Once triggers are identified, help shield them from triggers.
14. Get treatment after one month.
If their symptoms last for more than one month, it’s time to seek professional treatment. Research is clear that nearly 100% of individuals show some symptoms of PTSD within the first month following traumas, but if symptoms persist beyond one month, the symptoms will not go away on their own, and they need treatment.
Doing activities to memorialize those who died is almost always helpful to bring some closure. Candlelight vigils, ceremonies, and funerals serve valuable social functions to support the living.
16. Don’t forget about siblings or children that weren’t actually at the event.
They may also need to talk.
Excerpted from my book They’ll Never Be the Same: A Parent’s Guide to PTSD in Youth.
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