Children of all ages will have questions about the Aurora shooting – some around trusting others, others about the safety of going to the movies. Whatever the questions, there are two important things to keep in mind as you talk to a child about trauma:
- Tell the truth; and
- Keep the discussion appropriate for the development level of the child.
It can be hard to tell the truth when the truth is ugly, just as it can be hard to know the right developmental level. Today’s blog focuses on examples, ideas, and resources for talking to children about the shooting.
Having an Age-Appropriate Discussion
Most adults need a little help figuring out the right way to talk with children about tough topics. Fortunately, there are some resources and simple tips for initiating discussions with different age children. Here are some ideas:
Children Under 6
- Keep explanations simple and broad: There are good guys and bad guys. The police and fire department are good guys – they are there to protect us. They can’t be everywhere but are there when you don’t even know it. Sometime bad things will happen and the good guys are there to help us feel safe again.
- If they want to do something to help: Help them create a Thank You card for the good guys or a Feel Better card for victims.
- Media Coverage: Limit media exposure. Many small children watching the 9-11 tragedy thought that there were multiple building being blown up all day long because they didn’t understand they were seeing the same image repeatedly throughout the day.
- Explanations: Stick to the facts. What exactly happened? We may never know everything that happened or why, but encourage your child’s discussion or play that may help process what they have heard or seen. Make sure to recognize any good things that came out after the trauma: people helping people get better, making donations, community building and support of police and fire officers.
- If they want to do something to help: Consider partnering with your child on creating or attending fundraiser, making a donation to a hospital, or working with your child and friends to organize a snack basket for the local 911 call center, fire house, or police officers.
- Media Coverage: Limit media exposure. Repeated images of the violent incident, the perpetrator or bloodied people running from the theater may promote an unintentional fear of going to the movies, or in this case, of college age men with dyed hair or other non-traditional personal styles.
- Understanding teen behavior: A trauma might make kids feel the world is not safe. Teens may shut down or act out as a means of expression. Therefore, do what you can to encourage discussion and maintain regular activities and structure. Model behavior you want to see from your children, such as journal, open discussion, reading, getting involved in a community activity of healing or some other physical activity that lets your teen feel they have helped in some way.
- Media Coverage: Limiting media coverage is still important for adolescents. Linda Ligenza, LCSW, Clinical Services Director, National Council for Community Behavioral Healthcare, warns of re-traumatization. “This can inadvertently occur through repeated watching of news reports, reading about the tragedy in newspapers and on line and through hearing and reading inflammatory, disturbing language such as use of the word, “massacre”.”
After the First Discussion
Having a single conversation with a child and limiting media coverage may not be enough. The National Association of School Psychologists recommends these tips for supporting children and youth after a crisis event.
- Be reassuring
- Be a good listener and observer
- Monitor the news
- Emphasize resiliency
- Highlight people’s compassion and humanity
- Maintain as much continuity and normalcy as possible
- Spend family time
- Do something positive with your children to help others in need.
- Ask for help if you or your children need it.
- Communicate with your school.
- Understand the grief process.
- Be aware of your own needs
For more information about each of these tips, and clues about how to use them, visit National Association of School Psychologist’s Resources page.
General Trauma Resources
- When Children Experience Trauma: A guide for parents and families, American Psychological Association, National Association for the Education of Young Children. http://actagainstviolence.apa.org/
- Helpful Tips for Managing Feelings After a Traumatic Event. http://www.cbhc.org/
- Talking to Children about Traumatic Events, Naomi Zikmund-Fisher, http://www.schoolcrisisconsultant.com
- The National Child Traumatic Stress Network: http://www.nctsnet.org/