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How to Address Tragedies, Such as the Texas School Shooting, With Children to Ensure Good Mental Health

May 27, 2022~In the wake of the recent mass shooting tragedies, many of us are left wondering how do we talk to our children about these tragedies, without causing undue or added stress to their fragile mental health?

 While this is not an easy topic for any parent or adult to process even for themselves, talking to children about what is happening and how it’s making them feel is critically important to their overall well-being, according to Dr. Ashley Zucker, a child and adolescent psychiatrist with Kaiser Permanente Southern California. That’s because children of all ages often know, hear and pick up on more than we may realize.

 “A great place to start with a difficult topic such as a school shooting is to ask children what they have heard or what they already know,” advised Dr. Zucker. “After we do that, it’s important to then check and see how this information is making them feel? That’s because it’s important for children to know that they can express their emotions and that they can ask questions. So while some kids may not yet be ready to talk, as a parent, you want to leave that door open.”

 Dr. Zucker noted many parents ask themselves, ‘What’s the right age to talk to my kids about this, or, what can I say?’

 For kids under the age of six, they may have a very difficult time understanding or processing tragedies, so talking to them will depend not only on what a parent is comfortable with, but also on what they may hear from others, she noted. 

 “For children with older siblings or affected families, it can be important for them to hear this information from their parents,” Dr. Zucker advised “For children under age six, I would keep things very simple and short. A one sentence explanation such as, ‘a bad person hurt people’ can be sufficient. Refocusing younger kids on the positives, such as the folks who stepped in to help or to stop the hurting of others, can significantly help reframe the situation a bit for these children and make it seem less scary and overwhelming.”

 For elementary age kids between the ages of six and 10, again, the conversation should be honest, but brief, according to Dr. Zucker. “You might start with saying, ‘A person went into a school and shot students and teachers.’ Follow the children’s lead with questions they may ask.  Don’t give more details than necessary, but again you don’t want to hide information from them.”

 For pre-teens ages 11-13, Dr. Zucker recommends asking, ‘Have you heard about the school shooting?’ ‘What have you heard about it?’ Then follow that up with questions checking in on how they’re handling that information such as, ‘How is this all making you feel?’ ‘Do you have questions about what happened?’

 For teens, Dr. Zucker advised the conversation should still be open and honest and not offer more details then necessary. “But, again, you want to follow their lead on what they want to talk about, and what questions they may have,” she noted. “Allow them to express their emotions and feelings about what has happened. Teens may be focused more on what they can do, whether it’s on helping the victims and families or preventing future tragedy. Taking action is a way for us to feel like we have some control over a situation that otherwise can feel uncontrollable.” 

 As for kids of all ages, it’s important for parents to share their own feelings such as being upset, scared, or confused by news of tragedies, Dr. Zucker said.

“But at the same time, parents need to remain calm and not be over-reactive as kids pick up on this and will mirror our behaviors,” she cautioned. “If we act overwhelmed and fearful, they will see that and feel that way too. You should also be cautious with kids watching the news and social media. For older kids, this may be unavoidable, but minimizing their exposure to the amount of coverage they engage in can be helpful. It’s important during traumatic events that parents serve as a safe and secure resource for their kids.”

 If you notice that your child seems fixated on what has happened, is continuously asking questions, or starts to have changes in behavior such as trouble with sleep, being fearful of separating from parents or going to school, this may be an indication that talking to a mental health professional would be helpful. 

 “Reassuring our children’s safety, even when we are afraid ourselves, is very important,” Dr. Zucker said. “Remind your kids that adults, parents, teachers and law enforcement are all there to keep them safe. Working together with your children to come up with a plan of action is also a good way to turn a terrible situation into something positive.”