This morning I logged onto my computer and saw the following headline: “12 Killed, 50 Wounded at Aurora Movie Theater.”
My heart dropped – Aurora is less than 30 miles from my house. I was saddened to think of the suffering these victims and their families are experiencing. Since reading that headline, my inbox has been receiving a steady supply of emails from clients and friends alike on how to talk to their children about this senseless act of violence.
Sadly, violence is everywhere – in the media, in our communities, in our schools and, yes, in our homes. While overexposure can begin to desensitize kids to it, in the beginning, most children feel frightened, unsafe and insecure. While tragedies as severe as the Aurora theatre shooting are rare, repeated media images and details make it seem as if they are inescapable.
Disturbing events are difficult for children to understand and for parents to explain. However, if you avoid a conversation with your child about these events, you are missing a critical opportunity to help your child learn to communicate and cope. Research shows that children, especially tweens (kids between the ages of 8 and 12) want parents and caring adults in their lives to talk about tough issues. In fact, those who have early conversations are more likely to continue turning to their parents as they become teens. So, here are some tips to get you started:
PROVIDE A SAFE SPACE
Your child needs a safe space to talk about their feelings, and it is up to you to provide it. Talking about his feelings with you can help ease the worry and fear he may feel, especially if he thinks he has to face his feelings – anger, sadness, and helplessness – alone. When your child asks a question, provide straightforward answers. This helps to distinguish between fact and rumors. If you don’t have an answer or the correct information, admit it and then, together with your child, find it. Hiding information or offering “white lies” causes children to be mistrustful rather than comforted. Also, please don’t ignore, discount or judge your child’s questions or feelings. Doing so allows your child to make up his or her own explanation as that will likely be more terrifying than any honest response you could offer.
REDUCE EXPOSURE TO MEDIA
While watching the news with your child can open a discussion about current events as well as violence, too much exposure can feed a child’s fear of not feeling safe. Restrict news for young children; the repeated stories and imagery are confusing. Each time the story runs, it feels like another act of violence. For older children, limit media exposure to when you can watch together so you can discuss their thoughts and feelings. Then, turn off the television and computer to do something else – play a board game, go for a walk, have a picnic – something that doesn’t expose your child to more accounts of the tragedy.
MONITOR YOUR BEHAVIOR
As parents, these acts of violence leave us with a horrible, sickening feeling in our stomachs. I get it. I really do. However, your child is watching you and listening to you, to see how you are reacting. Yes, it is okay to be upset and it is okay to show your child that you are upset. Just don’t let those feelings consume you. Your reaction is influenced your child’s reaction. Instead, acknowledge how you are feeling and then discuss ways to manage concerns. Again, this opens the lines of communication and helps reestablish a sense of safety for your child.
IF NEEDED, GET SUPPORT
If you or your child is depressed or unable to participate in activities, please seek out support from your clergy or a counselor.
FINALLY, HOLD YOUR CHILD TIGHT
This one is self-explanatory. Tragedies like the Aurora shooting are terrifying for all of us. Holding your child helps to reassure him that you love him and are doing everything you can to make his personal world is safe.