In Response To Tragedy, Let Age Be Your Guide

No matter how hard we try to shield our children from violence and tragedy, the reality is that our society is inundated by a constant stream of information.

Even if we keep our children from viewing upsetting news on television, it is likely they will pick up information from friends at school or by overhearing a conversation.  And we need to make sure that if they are exposed to something tragic, that we as parents are giving them the story first in a truthful and age-appropriate manner.

Following the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history earlier this week, much of the nation is still in shock, grieving for our fallen citizens.  But even if we have not yet processed the situation in our own minds, we must open up the lines of communication with our children to allay their fears, comfort and support them.

In an interview with Today, Dr. Deborah Gilboa discusses some ways to protect your children from being exposed to tragic news coverage and how to open the discussion about tragedies like that in Las Vegas.

First and foremost, she suggests that very young children do not need to be told about tragedy in the news unless they have come upon information accidentally — for example, overhearing a conversation or glimpsing a piece of news coverage.

“If it doesn’t directly affect your family, kids under 8 do not need to hear about this. Before this age, children struggle to process it.”

She also suggests that parents fully compose themselves and put thought into what they will say to their children so they can calmly listen and respond to their questions.

“First, you have to process your own emotional response. What you do will affect them more than what you say,” she says. “Have your first reaction away from your child.”

It is vital we respond to our children’s questions and concerns in an age-appropriate manner.  We may have the best-laid plans to shield our children from upsetting news, but it may not always be avoidable.

If your preschooler or younger grade-school child has been exposed to a breaking story, such as what happened this week in Las Vegas, talk to them – but keep it simple.

These stories should reinforce parents’ beliefs. Perhaps, parents want their children to know that a bad man hurt people. Maybe parents want their children to know that someone with a serious illness felt angry and hurt people.

“You are going to give a one-sentence story to anyone under 6,” says Gilboa.

Especially at this young and impressionable age, parents need to reinforce to their children they are safe and that you will be available for any questions or fears they may express in the aftermath.

It is not necessary to share too many details, and the conversation should be kept positive.  Explain to them that many good people, like police and firefighters, came out to help when people were hurt.  Emphasize there are many people in their lives who work every day to keep them safe.

Older elementary school children should be shielded from violent images or news coverage that will frighten them. Again, open communication is key, and parents can focus on the positive things that happen in the world every day.

Gilboa says, “Children in this age group will ask many more interrogative questions and parents need to decide how much they want to share.”

“Let’s see if we can replace those memories and balance it out by showing the positives and the amazing people who rushed to help,” she says.

Middle and high school tweens and teens will most certainly be exposed to news coverage and discussions amongst their peers at school.  Teachers may even introduce related topics in class.  Especially in this age of technology where most teens have a cell phone, they will be inundated with the imagery of the event.

Teens may grasp far more about a tragedy than younger children, but that does not mean they will be less frightened.  A tragedy the nature of the Las Vegas shooting leaves everyone shocked and scared – even adults.  Be open with your older children about your fears, but as with children of other ages, accentuate the positive stories of survival and heroism that have come from the tragedy.

“If you are going to talk [about] a fraught or laden topic … you start with a pretest. You are going to ask how they feel about it,” Gilboa says.

If they have heard of it, listen to their feelings. If they haven’t heard of it, parents have an opportunity to share their beliefs while gaining better insight into their tweens.

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“[This becomes] a great conversation of their values and your values that do not focus on the particular gore [but] more on the person you are raising,” she says.

Older high schoolers will need to be more involved in the back and forth of your conversation.  While younger kids are more actively listening to you and trying to process what they are hearing, teens will have their own opinions about what happened and why – and analyzing the responses of friends, teachers, parents, and the media.

“Teenagers are looking for hypocrisy and solutions. And they are going to ask ‘What are you doing?’ You can answer and then ask ‘what are you doing? What would you like to do? What can we do together?”

Teaching teenagers to work toward change will help them be resilient, she says. She stresses that parents still need to listen to their teens’ feelings and display empathy.

“I think for anyone action makes us feel effective,” Gilboa says. “What we want our kids to do when [they] see something wrong is to try to fix it.”

At any age, the bottom line is being accessible and supportive to our children.  In times of tragedy like this week’s mass shooting, all children need to feel safe and secure.  They may feel the need to express their fears and confusion, or they may shut down trying to process it.

Whatever reaction our children have to tragedies like these, being their anchor and safety net is a parent’s most important job.

Have your children come to you with their fears or questions following the shooting in Las Vegas?  Share your thoughts and advice with other parents in the comment section.

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