On Dec. 14, 2013 a shooter opened fire on an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. As a result, schoolchildren everywhere are likely scared and confused; parents may be equally upset. When a devastating and violent incident like this takes place, the subsequent news media coverage of the event can heighten kids' fears.
During these moments of crisis, it is important for parents to understand how they can help calm children's fears.
Marianne Wamboldt, MD, a physician at Children's Colorado, offers this advice: "Most parents have all the skills necessary to help their children deal with these events. Children are very aware of their parent's worries, especially during crises. Parents should admit their concerns to their children, but stress that they are coping with the concerns. Having an action plan as to how they, as a family, are going to help prevent further traumas is helpful for all."
"Trauma-focused behavioral therapists have shown that kids are really afraid of their fear returning," said Dr. Jeffrey Dolgan, Senior Psychologist in Behavioral Health at Children's Hospital Colorado. "They aren't afraid of rifles, strangers, or even police cars patrolling around the school. They're afraid of feeling that scared again."
Below, Drs. Dolgan and Wamboldt provide tips on how parents can talk to children about school shootings.
Increase parental availability
Parents should be accessible to their kids physically and emotionally. Kids are likely to be scared and anxious in the aftermath of a crisis, and they may identify with the victims. Nurturing and supportive parents provide a safe space for children to vent their emotions.
Decrease media availability
Kids don’t understand the process behind a story they see on the news. Every time they see coverage of the crisis, they perceive it as happening again. Parents should be sensitive to this and limit the amount of crisis-related media their kids can access.
Learn more on how to talk to your children about school violence in the news.
Kids will look to their parents for cues on how to react to a crisis. If parents are anxious, particularly about their child returning to school after a shooting, the children are likely to be nervous as well. Parents should project stability and calmness in relation to the event.
Be open to kids’ fears
After a crisis, kids are most likely to fear the possibility of fear returning. They are less afraid of the event happening again than they are of re-experiencing the anxiety of that day. Kids need to tell their story, so parents should give them plenty of time and space to do so.
Be prepared for questions
Many questions kids ask will be difficult, if not impossible to answer. Parents should explain that a school shooting is a random event and discuss steps the school will take to ensure students’ safety. Remind kids that the teachers are there to protect them.
Read more interviews with our experts about the ripple felt from this traumatic event and psychiatry and mental health.