5 Tips for Talking to Children About Mass Shootings

Research explains how to help children cope after hearing about mass shootings.

Posted Nov 08, 2018

On November 7, 2018, a gunman opened fire in a packed Southern California bar during college night, killing at least 12 people. On Valentine's Day 2018, a former student shot and killed at least 17 students and adults at a Parkland, Florida high school. Four months before then, a man shot and killed 58 concertgoers in Las Vegas, Nevada, now known as the deadliest mass shooting in American history.

With the advent of social media and 24-hour cable news, it may seem as if mass shootings have become more frequent. Indeed, according to a recent study published in the Journal of Child and Family Studies, researchers found that more people have been killed or injured in mass school shootings in the United States in the past 18 years than in the entire 20th century. 

With the spate of recent mass shootings, you may be wondering whether you should talk to your children, or how to talk with them, about the violence. In today's digital age, children and adolescents are well aware and exposed to the images and knowledge of violence more than ever before. Included in this article is evidence-based information from the National Child Traumatic Stress Network to help guide your responses to children in the aftermath of mass shootings.

This article outlines five ways to help children cope during the aftermath of a mass shooting.

1) First, take steps to limit the children's access to media. In this digital age of 24-hour cable news and viral news stories shared widely on social media, one mass shooting incident is often covered repeatedly and pervasively. And, in the era of ubiquitous smartphones in the hands of many children themselves, the horrific images and provocative media stories in the aftermath of a mass shooting can cause secondary trauma, which is emotional duress resulting when an individual indirectly hears about trauma experienced by others, such as through media. Teenagers may unwittingly find their social media content rife with graphic imagery and shared violent news stories following a mass shooting. When children/teens are repeatedly exposed to these images, it  can cause distress and anxiety.

Indeed, study findings presented by Dr. Pam Ramsden at an Annual Conference of the British Psychology Society in Liverpool found that viewing violent news events via social media can cause people to experience symptoms similar to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Thus, following a mass shooting, it is particularly important for parents/caregivers to closely monitor their children's access to media and limit exposure to graphic images, especially as children tend to be impacted by imagery more than words. Graphic images tend to remain in children's memory longer than words and can cause distress to persist longer.

2) When a horrific mass shooting event occurs, such as 12 people being killed on college night at a bar, parents often ask whether they should talk with their children about the tragedy. Some are worried that talking about the mass shooting to their child will inadvertently cause or increase distress in their child. Should you say anything to your child, or is it better to avoid the topic?

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network recommends that you start with learning what the child already knows. If the child is very young and does not have knowledge about the incident, it is not necessary to talk with your child about mass shootings; however, school-aged and older children often have already heard information about the mass shooting. You may begin your discussion about the mass shooting with inquiring as to what your child already knows or understands about the incident. It is particularly important to engage in active listening, and to ask open-ended questions when relevant, so that you may adequately learn if your child has misinformation or misunderstandings about the mass shooting. In using reflective statements, such as “I hear that you’re feeling scared about a shooter coming,” the child can feel comfortable in expressing his underlying worries or fears. Carve out some time to sit with your child in a quiet environment, and be open to calmly hearing questions from your child, even as the questions may cause feelings of anxiety for you. 

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network encourages parents to elicit questions from children, and to answer those questions directly: “Your child/teen may have difficult questions about the incident. For example, she may ask if it is possible that it could happen at your workplace; she is probably really asking whether it is ‘likely.’ The concern about re-occurrence will be an issue for caregivers and children/teens alike. While it is important to discuss the likelihood of this risk, she is also asking if she is safe. This may be a time to review plans your family has for keeping safe in the event of any crisis situation.”

Importantly, if your child or teenager asks you about the incident, do not avoid answering the questions. Your child will get the answers, and likely misinformation, from other children or media avenues. You know your child best- and you are the best person to respond to your child. Answer the questions in a developmentally age-appropriate way. Not talking about it can make the event even more threatening in your child’s mind. When children (or even adults) avoid a perceived stressor, the act of avoidance tends to increase the anxiety response. When parents are reticent to talk about what happened, the child may perceive the threat to be greater than it actually is in real life. It may also cause them to turn to peers or other media sources for information. If your child/teen has inaccurate information or misconceptions, take the time to provide the correct information in simple, clear, age-appropriate language.

3) Hearing these kinds of questions allows parents to address their children’s underlying fears. Talking about the fears allows the child to work through his emotions. When parents identify and talk about their own emotional responses, the parents are modeling for the child how to cope with his own emotional responses. When children are unable to express their emotions in a healthy avenue, the anxiety or fear tends to manifest in other avenues, such as yelling, engaging in tantrums, socially isolating, having difficulty paying attention or concentrating, or changes in sleeping and eating.

For children who are temporarily having difficulty managing their emotions or worries about the incident, a research-supported strategy that can help is using mindfulness techniques. This is a simple yet powerful strategy that children can easily learn to help manage their anxious thoughts, such as at bedtime to help them fall asleep. Furthermore, if you notice your child beginning to socially isolate herself, this is the time to be proactive and reach out to build or maintain social support for her. This may include coordinating peer-oriented social activities for her in order to help decrease social isolation (which is a red flag for potential or emerging depression).

4) Reframe the tragic incident. Don’t stop at discussing the child or teenager’s emotional responses or underlying worries. Do focus on the compassionate and helpful actions taken by others on the scene. Shine a spotlight on the helpers, such as the first responders and the heroes in the tragedy. The teen may have already heard about the 12 individuals who were killed in the mass shooting, as well as the name of the shooter; however, as a parent, you can reframe the incident so that the teenager also hears about the heroes and helpers who came to the rescue. Highlight the actions of the medical team who treated the injured. According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, “When you speak of the quick response by law enforcement and medical personnel to help the victims (and the heroic or generous efforts of ordinary citizens), you help your child/teen see that there can be good, even in the midst of such a horrific event.”

Parents/caregivers may also choose to participate in calls for action to help the victims and/or their families. When doing so, it may be beneficial to talk with your children, in a developmentally age-appropriate way, about the steps you have taken to be helpful and kind to the victims. For instance, if a mass shooting victim left behind a family who needs help with food and clothing, you may choose to have your child help you in sending the supplies to the family in need. Taking helpful and concrete actions can serve to encourage children to feel more hopeful and to reduce feelings of helplessness in the face of tragedy. You are your child’s most powerful learning tool. When you model constructive coping strategies and resilience for your child, they are learning how to cope with it themselves. 

5) Seek professional help as needed. Behavioral changes such as difficulty concentrating, irritability, and increased worries are not unusual following exposure to a mass shooting; however, these symptoms tend to be temporary and reduce within a few weeks. It is expected that these behaviors decrease rather quickly over time if your child’s access to media exposure of the mass shooting is appropriately limited and she has an avenue to express her thoughts and feelings.

While children are resilient in general, some children may be more vulnerable in how they are impacted by mass shooting tragedies or at increased risk for secondary trauma. Be familiar with the red flags for concerning behaviors. If your child’s behavioral changes do not gradually decrease or are significant enough to negatively impact his social, home, or school functioning, then seek professional help. For instance, if he is avoiding going to school for fear of a school shooting, then he may benefit from seeing a child mental health professional for assessment.

For professional help, go to the Psychology Today Therapist Database, your pediatrician, state and local mental health associations, or the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, for referrals to child/adolescent trauma experts.

For evidence-based information on child trauma, go to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network at www.NCTSN.org.

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