by Kristin Kuiper, MSW, LMSW
I was driving to an early morning meeting last week Friday when I heard on the radio, the senseless and horrid acts of violence that had happened in Colorado just hours earlier. I immediately called my brother, who lives in Denver, hoping that neither he nor any of his loved ones were involved in what has now been called the largest mass shooting in American history. Thankfully, he was not involved and was not personally connected with anyone who was. My day went on with me checking the Internet for updates, hearing others reactions to the information that continued to develop that day. I wondered how and when my children, ages 3, 6, and 7, were going to hear the overtones of what the adults around them were absorbing. I found myself heartbroken at the fact that although there were times when I could tune out or block out the tragedy from my Friday and go about the tasks of my day, there were many people who could not, whose lives have been forever changed by one person’s decision to go on this rampage. Life interrupted, changed, and for some, ended.
As adults we have a difficult time making any kind of sense of what happened. As parents, we worry what this means for our children—for what they see TV and computer screens, and what they pick up on from conversations around them. What does it mean to parent in a time like this? I have had clients ask me this question in the wake of Friday’s tragedy. I find myself at a loss for words, as I ask myself the same questions.
There are a couple guiding principles that I want to highlight that we can keep in mind when we are searching for how to parent in light of dark events around us. These principles don’t necessarily give us a protocol for how to respond to our children’s various needs or fears, however, keeping these in mind can provide an anchor when we are feeling fearful and anxious ourselves.
- Tragic events can leave children feeling insecure and unsure of their world. Children crave security—knowing they are safe and loved. Their developing brains depend on this need being met in order to grow into healthy well-adjusted adults. Adults reactions to the shootings in Colorado affect the children around them. So, processing your own fears and anxieties with other adults, out of range of children, is important as you decide how you want to discuss the events with your children. We can often, without realizing, pass on our own fears to our children.
- Children are concrete thinkers. They cannot distinguish between reality and fantasy. So, images on screen that they see can trigger fears and anxieties each time these images are viewed. If possible, limit screen exposure to ongoing news coverage of the events. Recognize that misinterpretations may occur when children see these images. They may think it is happening over and over again, or has happened in their neighborhood. They may not verbalize this fear. Anxiety and fear shows up in children’s behaviors.
- Listen more than talk. Despite common developmental stage characteristics, each child is unique. Listening to questions and answering concretely and honestly is helpful for children. For example, if your child asks questions about the shootings, instead of trying to shift the subject or provide a lot of details, respond by validating how they are feeling “yes, what happened is scary” and then follow up with a question, such as “tell me more about what you’ve heard.” This can provide you with some direction in how to respond with a truthful assurance—“you are in a safe place now” or “mom and dad are here to listen to how you are feeling about this.” It also gives you an opportunity to correct misconceptions such as children thinking this happened close to home or will happen to them next time they go to the theater.