For parents, guardians and educators, the days after mass shootings require a delicate balance between answering children’s questions and protecting them from the horrific details of the most recent tragedy.
Despite their young age, children are often resilient in the face of hardship, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t also scared when they hear news of murders in Goshen, Monterey Park, and Half Moon Bay.
“Kids often say they’re fine after a terrible event,” says Alhambra Unified School District Supt. Denise R. Jaramillo wrote in a letter to families on Monday, reminding adults to watch for behavioral changes in their children that could mean they are struggling. Schools in the Alhambra reopened on Tuesday.
If a child’s sleeping pattern, appetite or communication style changes, Jaramillo said, a child may be signaling that they are afraid of what happened.
“If you see changes in your child’s behavior patterns, let your child know that this is a mind-body message that they need to talk about what they are thinking and feeling,” Jaramillo said. “Please let your child’s school know that your child may be suffering without understanding that the behavior is related to unspoken fears and anxiety.”
The Times spoke to experts who shared similar guidelines, and delved deeper into how children can feel safe amid violence close to home.
Here are some of the tips they suggested.
1. Contact your child and talk to them about their concerns.
Mental health professionals advise that the first thing parents should do is make sure their child or adolescent knows they are willing and available to talk to them.
Always start by asking your child or teen what they’ve already heard about the event, Katherine Williams, a child and adolescent psychologist and professor of psychiatry at UC San Diego, said in an interview with The Times in 2022 after a previous mass shooting. . Parents can do this by asking open-ended questions and calmly answering children’s questions in a simple and developmentally friendly manner. Young children may not have heard about the incident, but older children may have watched news videos during the school day.
Help your child identify his feelings about the shooting, Williams said. A great way to do that is to model how you feel about it. For example, you could say, “I’m worried about those families. … How are you feeling right now?” And then help the child find ways to deal with those difficult feelings, such as talking about the people who help with such tragedies.
2. Give children a sense of control.
Children may feel that the world is out of control and there is not much they can do about it. But it’s important they don’t feel helpless, said Richard Weissbourd, a Harvard psychology professor whose work focuses on vulnerability and resilience in childhood, who also spoke to The Times in 2022.
This is especially true for teenagers, who are more prone to feeling disillusioned and cynical. Encourage your kids to “turn passivity into activity,” Weissbourd said. If they have strong opinions about gun control or school safety, get them involved in political action or advocacy. “Anything that makes them feel like they can have an impact on this problem, that it’s less likely to happen again if there’s collective action,” is really important.
Talk to adolescents about what it’s taken to emerge from dark periods of history, and what our responsibility is in situations like this — that we should “press for the change we want,” Weissbourd said.
Younger kids can also send thank-you notes to paramedics, peace officials and others who have helped save lives, “which in turn gives the child a sense of hope, as well as some control over what feels like a scary world right now,” said Williams.
2. Give children reassuring facts about their safety.
Parents should immediately reassure children that they are safe – a practice that extends to all trauma survivors.
With younger children, adults can explain everything adults do to keep them safe, such as locking doors and conducting emergency drills.
When shots are fired at schools, parents can and should also tell their children that school is a safe place for them.
3. Treat children according to their age.
Only give young children short, simple information. These children are less verbal, so they can communicate about their anxiety through drawing or playing. Answer their questions with details, but don’t overload them.
For young people of middle and high school age, more detailed conversations are appropriate. The best place to have those conversations depends on the teen — it could be in the car or with a friend present, rather than just sitting and talking one-on-one about the event.
4. Limit media exposure.
This applies to young people of all ages. Violent images can cause secondary trauma. Symptoms of this in children are chronic fatigue, anger, poor concentration and anxiety. And information that is inappropriate for development can cause fear and confusion.
For younger children: “Every time they watch the news, they feel like it’s a new event rather than a repeat of the same event. It’s important they don’t watch too much,” Carol Vidal, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Johns Hopkins University, told The Times in 2019.
While older children will understand that difference, prolonged exposure to graphics and details is also harmful to them.
5. Model healthy behavior.
Children pick up on everything their parents say and do. Parents can lead by example by turning off the television, radio or social media. It can be constructive for parents to recognize that constantly watching or hearing about a violent incident also makes them anxious or fearful.
But parents need to make it clear that they’re dealing with their own emotions and that their child doesn’t have to be strong for them, said Jonathan Vickburg, a licensed marriage and family therapist who treats children dealing with trauma, in a 2022 interview.
One way you can do this is to talk to other parents, Weissbourd said. Find out how they feel and how they choose to discuss the tragedy with their children.
It’s normal to be anxious right now. But if you don’t control your reactions, you can exacerbate or even trigger your child’s anxiety. Weissbourd recommends taking a walk, meditating, limiting news intake (especially distressing images), and hanging out with loved ones as coping strategies.
6. Maintain routines.
Sticking to regular routines can be comforting and can help children and teens maintain a sense of normalcy.
That can be difficult in the hours and days immediately after a traumatic event, Vickburg said, but parents can still help their kids put things in order, for example by staying with family for dinner, doing homework or hanging out with friends . .
Especially with teens, it’s important to give them extra time to be with their friends. It helps them establish normalcy and connect with their support network.
7. Have a plan.
Review safety procedures at school and home. Let children know who to call, where to meet, and how to communicate in an emergency. This helps children feel safe and know that adults are in control.
8. Observe children’s emotional state and seek help if necessary.
The majority of children are resilient and won’t experience long-term symptoms after a single event, experts say. Immediately after a violent incident, they may experience fear and anxiety. Some people closer to the incident may also have trouble sleeping or be jittery.
Watch for changes in behavior, mood, appetite, or sleep. You should also look for avoiding school, social isolation and more tantrums, Williams said. When such symptoms persist over time and begin to affect a person’s functioning, professional help may be needed.
More tips on talking to kids
The National Ass. of School Psychologists has guidelines for explaining violent events to children of different ages. It’s important, the experts say, to use age-appropriate language and answer questions without adding to the confusion. From the NASP tip sheet:
- “Early grade school children need short, simple information that must be balanced with reassurances that their school and homes are safe and that adults are there to protect them.”
- “Children in upper primary and early secondary school will be more vocal about asking questions about whether they are really safe and what is being done in their school. They may need help separating reality from fantasy. Discuss the efforts of school and community leaders to provide safe schools.”
- “Senior high school and high school students will have strong and differing opinions about the causes of violence in schools and society. … Emphasize the role students play in maintaining safe schools by following school safety guidelines … communicating any personal safety concerns to school administrators and accessing support for emotional needs.
The Los Angeles County Office of Education also offers these resources to help parents and educators:
Former Times staff writers Nina Argawal and Sonali Kholi contributed to this report.