It’s almost a relief that it’s summer vacation. For the sake of our children, I mean. The buzz about the horrific, deadening, jaw-dropping news regarding the massacre in Colorado may be slightly less focused at the center of their lives–they’re not congregating in the hall or at recess. Well, maybe. That’s the difference between 1999 and 2012–back when Columbine happened we all watched as television detailed the horrific events of a school shooting and the radio reported on the lockdown and a mourning community—but our children and teens weren’t on Facebook or Twitter or Youtube then. The stories weren’t quite as accessible–they weren’t in our pockets. Now we’re texting and streaming one video after another.
All this bad news takes its toll on us. It endorses the curiosity we have about tragedy and violence and it can trickle into present repeatedly. At some point, part of how we help our children and teens cope is by facilitating digital breaks. Unplug the phone, log off Facebook, and help your children mourn offline, understand how it may affect their plans, and encourage them to reach out for face-to-face support networks.
I agree with the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry:
There are no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ ways to talk with children about such traumatic events.
The 24-news cycle is amped-up, accessible, and ever-present. It fills us with information by the second & minute, not the hour. Our children and teens learn, hear, and spread responses with unparalleled rapidity. Never before did we consume media and news like we do today. Even daily hours of television viewing are increasing. We’ve also piled our digital time on top of it. This tragedy seeps into our centers.
After a cafe shooting here in Seattle in June and ongoing mass shootings throughout our country, I think we’re profoundly scared. Our culture encourages and enjoys violence in movies and video games. Shootings are glorified and little babies and children bear witness to death (at early ages) via digital & traditional media and advertising. The NRA fights to keep guns accessible. Politicians have attempted (and failed) to censor conversations about gun safety in the pediatrician’s office. Even today, influential leadership avoids discussions about gun control. All this and then we chat, talk, tweet, stream, and absorb violence with a hunger. It’s just so horrifying that sometimes it’s hard not to watch. We follow along in bed, on the bus, in our cars (!), and during our face to face time with loved ones and family. This news is upsetting and torrential. Many of us are left feeling a bit helpless or vulnerable. So are our children.
Now is the time to be assertive with your children. Listen more than you talk. And maybe commit to turn off your phones as much as you can.
7 Tips To Support Your Children After The Aurora Shooting
- Hearing about events like the massacre in Colorado makes us feel increasingly vulnerable. We’re likely at no more risk today than we were yesterday but there is no doubt that for we parents, today seems very different. Acknowledge this feeling and ask your children about how they feel. Check yourself that you’re listening more than you’re talking. Many children just want a sounding board.
- Use age appropriate explanations but answer questions candidly. Let you children understand as much as they inquire. However, some children really won’t want to talk about it. They may rather be children. Give them the space to avoid the news and return to play.
- There is a balance of providing information to our children and also protecting them from this news. Don’t ignore what they are learning on TV or online. Demonstrate your love and talk about your goals to provide security at every turn.
- Children who have suffered acts of violence or loss may take this harder. Children are very resilient and will cope well if you provide support, offering up conversation with a sense of openness.
- Watch what you say, how you respond (as best you can), and how you inquire about what has happened. Children will intently follow your response and learn about how to cope as they witness your reactions.
- If you know anyone exposed to violence or involved in the shootings today, shower them with love, unexpected support, and maintain a network of compassion for victims and their families as they mourn now and in the coming months and years.
- Remember the power of turning off the phone, your social networking inboxes and your television. You don’t have to go into a black-out but you also don’t need the news streaming all day.
It is my hope that we heal and support the victims, the shooter’s mother and father, and the families of those exposed to horrific violence this morning. And that we keep fighting for a safer country–one where we limit access to fireams, one where we think carefully about the images that are produced for our children, and one where prioritize and protect our public spaces. My love and energy to all those suffering today…
the tricky thing for us is negotiating the very different needs of two kids. mine are 5 and 7. after the cafe racer shooting (the kids were at a school that was in lockdown), the 7 year old sensed that something was very wrong and different, and wanted to know why, and was able to digest the limited, white washed information i gave him, and knowing seemed easier for him than just the anxiety without any information (once they were solidly out of harms way, here at my office), and the 5 year old could not. she still cannot process the explanation she overheard me giving her brother. she has been anxious and jumpy ever since, does not want to sleep alone, constantly discusses the possibilities of bad guys being around etc. i really dont know how i could have told him without her hearing (or him or her classmates telling her), but i really regret not having found a better way to shield her.
Wendy Sue Swanson, MD, MBE says
It is really difficult balancing the needs of multiple children. I certainly don’t think you did anything “wrong.” But I hear why you have a sense of regret. As best you can, think about what you’ve learned now and how you’ll communicate differently next time (if ever).
I’m sorry your daughter is still experiencing anxiety and stress from what was a very challenging day for her and many of us here in Seattle.
However, your comment made me think about how it isn’t just age, but personality that influences how we provide feedback and communication to our children in an emergency. That’s often why parents know best how to talk about challenging moments, just because of your deep understanding of who each of your children are. Keep providing explanations about all of the things you do to protect your daughter when she’s probing. And if your daughter’s jumpy, frightened fears continue for any more time, consider using other ways to soothe (deep breathing, distraction) and/or talking with her doc about talking with a behavioral health counsellor–even if only 1 or 2 times. May be really helpful for her.
Consider writing a letter for your kids to have in a time of emergency to keep at their school? Here’s one I wrote for my then 3 year-old: https://www.wendysueswanson.com/i-hope-he-never-reads-it/
yes, i agree, im fairly certain that each of their responses (her-hers, him-his) would have been the same even had their ages been reversed. and thanks for the tip- i forgot all about that option (pediatrician/counselor) because this seems like such a normal (yet overwhelming) parenting problem — helping your children learn about the existential dilemma of our own and everyone’s mortality– as well as understanding the violence that exists in the world. its just that the current events have resulted in her having to face these issues long before she has emotional tools to cope. in the meantime- im prioritizing her need to feel secure over my need to be honest about society and the world, and telling her that we are all safe, locks work, 911 works, police take care of bad guys, we take care of her, etc.