How to Talk to Kids About the Colorado Movie Theater Shooting, Age by Age

The Aurora, Colo. movie  theater shooting on Friday that killed at least 12 people and injured  dozens more — with a reported six victims being taken to an area children’s  hospital — is a somber reminder that no matter how hard we try to keep our kids out of danger, we can’t protect  them all the time. Although it’s understandable to want to avoid talking about a  tragedy with your kids, it’s important if they’re old enough to have heard about  it. Here’s how to talk about a shooting with your kids, age by age.

Preschool Keep it simple. Even if you  think young children are blissfully unaware the news, if the tragedy is local or  being discussed among parents, chances are they’ll know that something’s going  on, says David Schonfeld, M.D., director of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement. (This is  especially true in the case of the Colorado movie theater shooting, which  involved the new Batman movie. “Even young kids have heard of Batman, so stories  about Batman are going to catch their attention,” he says.) Dr. Schonfeld  suggests talking to your young children in simple and concrete terms. You can  say, “there was a man who brought a gun to a movie theater and hurt some people  badly.” Be honest and direct, but skip the details, which can be  traumatizing.

Reassure, but don’t lie.  It’s common for a preschooler to  express very direct fears like, “I’m worried someone will come shoot us.” If  they do, Dr. Schonfeld says parents should reassure their kids without making  any false promises or dismissing their concerns. “Tell them it’s very unlikely  something like that will occur.”

Limit media exposure. You don’t need to hide the newspaper  during a tragedy, but you shouldn’t have the news running 24/7, either. Dr.  Schonfeld says studies have shown that repeated exposure to graphic details may  make it harder for a child to cope with a tragedy. Try to watch the news when  young kids are not in the room, and if they do hear a scary-sounding news  snippet, address it simply and let them know you are doing everything you can to  keep them safe.

Talk about what real guns can do. Whether they’re playing  with toy guns or simply making their fingers into the shape of a gun,  preschoolers are typically aware of guns and need to understand the difference  between a toy and a real weapon, says Hayley Sherwood, a psychologist who works  with kids who are victims of trauma. “I would say, ‘it’s okay to play pretend  guns, but real guns can hurt people and very scary things can happen with real  guns.'”

Grade School Be honest, but not  explicit. Like preschoolers, the best approach for school-age kids is a  direct and honest one. Sherwood suggests starting the conversation by asking  what, if anything, they’ve heard about the shooting in school from their  classmates or teacher. Correct any misinformation and answer questions honestly,  with simple answers that don’t delve into explicit, potentially traumatizing  details.

Find out their fears. If you’re going to try and comfort  kids, you have to find out what’s worrying them, says Dr. Schonfeld. “The fears  children have might be different than adults and might be distorted and  incomplete,” he says. Speak in a calm, empathetic tone and make sure any  conversation you have includes lots of opportunities for your kids to ask  questions and share their concerns.

Share your feelings, too. It can be tempting to look like  the stoic parent who has everything under control, but sharing some of your  worries and fears — without losing it completely — is actually beneficial for  kids. “It’s not useful to see parents overwhelmed, but we can’t ask our kids to  share without sharing some ourselves,” says Dr. Schonfeld.

Talk about safety measures in place. Let kids know that the  adults in their lives are doing everything they can to assure they will stay  safe. Talk about what you do to keep your home safe, such as locking doors or  not opening the door for strangers. Don’t falsely promise that these measures  will definitely protect you and your children, but reassure your kids that the  chances something bad will happen are very  slim.

Middle/High School   Be as direct and  honest. Sherwood says parents should let their kids know, “I know  you know what happened. If you want to talk about it I’m here.” If they ask a  question such as, “why would somebody do this?” be honest that people sometimes  have lots of anger and bad feelings that make them want to hurt and kill other  people. Think about social media exposure. Social media  tools like Facebook and Twitter can make your kids feel like they’re very much a  part of a tragedy such as the Colorado movie theater shooting, says Dr.  Schonfeld. While it’s not realistic to ask your kids to stay off their  smartphones or avoid their Twitter feeds completely, you should advise them to  think carefully about their social media exposure and how much time they’re  spending reading, following and responding to what’s on these outlets. And if  they’re upset by the constant stream of information, reassure them that you’re  available to talk — and make sure they know it’s okay to stop paying attention  to the story and do something else. Reassure them that feeling  different or angry is okay. Reassure your kids that an individual  who committed such a crime has other serious problems and take the opportunity  to talk about other troubling feelings your children might have.

Approach it from the third person. Teenagers are not exactly  known for their willingness to communicate with their parents, but Schonfeld  says you can sometimes back into a conversation by saying something like this at  the dinnertable: “So I heard about this on the news. What were your friends  saying about this?” Never force your kids to talk, but let them know you are  there if they are ever ready to discuss it.

Don’t feel obligated to give a reason for what happened.  “Resist the temptation to come up with simple answers to complex situations,”  says Dr. Schonfeld. Although parents often want to provide a reason for why  someone committed such a crime, the reality is we just don’t quite know. And  that’s okay.

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