• Megan Johnson, Ph.D.

Talking To Your Kids About Mass Shootings, Terror, and Trauma

General Tips: Before the age of 8, it is best to shield kids from the realities of these types of events if at all possible. This is because kids at this age do not have the cognitive capacity and emotional regulation skills to process such realities. For example, many children under the age of 8 cannot differentiate between reality and fantasy with what they see and hear on TV. However, protecting your child from an awareness that these types of events occur is sometimes out of our control. Many schools do mass shooter drills, kids may hear about it on the news, or friends or older siblings may make them aware of the possibility of such events. If it is not possible to keep such events out of the mind of your child, the following suggestions are provided to help you speak with your child about mass shootings and terror.

1. Limit exposure to news coverage: Images are more emotionally disturbing and stick with kids longer than words do

2. Control the narrative: If and when kids hear about the tragedy, use it as an opportunity to teach your values.

3. Listen for and empathize with their emotional response.

4. Help them to find age appropriate solutions.

Below you will find some age appropriate discussion points to talk with your child about tragedy.

Pre-School Age 3-5

Process your own reaction and construct a narrative before taking to your child. Keep the narrative simple and come up with a one or two sentence story that reinforces your beliefs, such as:

o That bad man made poor choices that hurt people who did not deserve it

o That person has a very serious illness and felt angry, but he did not express his feelings in a good way.

Then focus on the positives

o Look for heroes and helpers in the story and highlight and praise them

o Notice how communities band together in the aftermath of tragedy and use this as a learning opportunity to encourage social support

Elementary Age 6-10

Do your best to keep them from seeing images of the tragedy on the news because pictures last longer in a child’s memory than words or stories do. If there is no way to prevent them from seeing pictures, make sure they also see images of helpers to counteract the traumatic narrative.

Tweens Age 11-13

Between the news, social media, and peer interactions, kids at this age have likely heard about what has happened. Start the conversation by asking your teen if they have heard news about what has happened. By brining it up, you get to help them form their narrative around what has happened.

o If they have not heard about it, share briefly what happened and your beliefs about it. Then ask about their thoughts and feelings.

o If they have heard about it, gently correct any misinformation and then listen to their feelings and help them process their emotions.

The conversations should focus on values that you as a family hold and how certain characters (i.e., the perpetrators) violated those values, and how other characters (i.e., first responders, victims) upheld those values.

Teens Age 14-18

Kids at this age are more aware that both good and evil exist in this world and are beginning to explore solutions to the world’s problems. Come alongside them and help them find or create solutions.

o Begin by processing emotions the same way you would with a tween

o Then help your child identify a response. You may need to provide them a few options. Teaching your child that they can do something in the aftermath of trauma that can contribute to healing and security gives them a sense of self-efficacy and creates resilience.

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