In the wake of the recent mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Tex., parents are wondering how to talk to their children about these horrific events.
The most important action parents and caregivers can take is to listen to their children, says Steven Marans, MSW, PhD, a child and adult psychoanalyst, and Carrie Epstein, LCSW, a clinical social worker, both of whom are co-directors of the Yale Center for Traumatic Stress and Recovery at the Yale Child Study Center.
“Learn first about whether children are aware of what has occurred. Then, talk with them about what impact, if any, the recent events have had on their thoughts, feelings, and behavior,” Epstein says.
As we are all confronted by the loss of life and the terror of gun violence that has now been experienced in Uvalde, it is not surprising that many of us may feel saddened and upset as we imagine the pain, grief, and trauma that so many in that community are now experiencing, Marans says.
“We may feel frustrated with the repeated and senseless loss of life. Many may also experience heightened anxiety about the safety of their own children, as the tragedy in Uvalde evokes the worst fears for any parent—the loss of one’s child,” he says. “In the midst of such powerful feelings, it is especially important to consider the best ways we can support our children, who may also have reactions to the news.”
We talked more with Marans and Epstein, who share advice (below) on how parents can navigate potentially difficult conversations with their children on this topic.
Focus first on your own reactions as a parent
Parents can first focus on turning down the volume of their own stress reactions, because kids turn to adults for their emotional stability, as well as for structure, predictability, and order in their daily lives.
There’s the “show me, don't tell me” approach to demonstrating that normal life routines and expectations still exist, even in the midst of disruptions. But if adults are anxious, depressed, or overwhelmed, they may be more irritable or impatient with their kids, without even realizing it. This can have a direct impact on how children experience their lives.
Once you address your own issues as a parent, you can more easily think from your child's point of view. For example, when a child is suddenly getting into battles about bedtime, it's not always easy for the parent to stop and ask, “What does this mean?”
After you've had a long day, it’s easy to miss that your child may be trying to communicate something about how they're feeling. If you can understand that some of the difficulties your child is struggling with may be a reflection of their inability to regulate and put words to their anxiety, you’ll be taking a step toward helping your child take a pause, so they can think about what they are feeling and why. These are important skills to develop and practice at any age.
Here are some tips for parents and caregivers to remember:
- Your ability to listen calmly to your children’s concerns is one of the most powerful ways of helping them feel safe and secure.
- You are the most important source of help for your children.
- Be aware of your own reactions. If you are having difficulty coping with reactions to the tragedy, support from family, trusted friends, clergy, and/or mental health professionals can be helpful. (See resource links below.)
- Identify your own concerns, fears, and feelings of anxiety, sadness, as well as frustration about loss of life due to violence. By recognizing your own reactions to the tragedy in Uvalde, you will be in a better position to listen to your children and distinguish between your reactions and theirs.
- Phase of development, immediate life circumstances, and the degree to which routines of daily life are disrupted all determine the size and scope of impact on a child’s world.
- Children and adolescents may not be able to describe their reactions or worries. Instead, they may focus on ways they are experiencing disruption to their normal lives. Without help from caregivers, their distress may only be expressed in symptomatic or problematic ways in which they are feeling, acting, and interacting.
- Routines provide children with a sense of predictability and control. When routines are disrupted and safety is compromised, children experience changes in ways their brains and bodies work, which can make them feel even less in control of themselves.
Listening can 'open the door' to a meaningful discussion
Many parents wonder if they should check in on their kids by asking a series of questions. But it's not so much about asking the child, “How are you doing?” over and over throughout the day, which can become counterproductive. Instead, parents can “open the door” to hearing what is on their kids' minds.
With school-age children and adolescents, it can be useful to open discussions by asking whether or not their friends have been talking about the tragedy in Uvalde. This introduction can provide an opportunity to ask about their thoughts and feelings, as well as their questions about what they have been hearing in the news and at home.
Ultimately, however, listening is one of the most powerful ways to support children and adolescents who may be experiencing anxiety and sadness. When they no longer feel alone, the chance to verbalize the details of these feelings, questions, and concerns with parents and caregivers can help them achieve greater order and mastery of their own personal reactions to these events. And facilitating a discussion, in and of itself, can provide not only an opportunity for them to be less isolated, but can also be a first step for them to be more active in the face of what can be overwhelming, unwanted feelings.
So, with greater awareness of the specifics of your children’s feelings and concerns, you will be in a much better position to engage in a discussion driven by what you have learned from your child, rather than by your own reactions, or by assumptions about the extent to which this tragedy has impacted them.
Encouraging discussion can also help identify ways kids can translate their empathy into activities that can support the well-being of others. This might include kindness toward others, identifying or interrupting bullying, and involvement in tutoring and after-school programs.
Specific to the Uvalde tragedy, this might mean fundraising for victims, political activism to address gun violence, or writing letters to political representatives, among other pro-social activities.
Too much news consumption can become overwhelming for kids and parents
It’s a natural inclination to want to learn more information to help us try to better understand the circumstances surrounding disturbing events. But watching the news frequently, or even compulsively, often only increases stressful arousal. Parents who limit their own news consumption will be better able to help kids make sense of what they're seeing and hearing from their own perspectives.
In addition, parents can help their older children, who may be choosing to watch the news on their own, think through whether the frequency with which they are checking the news is helpful, or whether it sometimes becomes less helpful and more stressful. This shouldn’t be a lecture; rather, it should open the door to a discussion.
Consider these general principles when talking with your child
When talking with your children, it is important to keep the following in mind:
- How physically close to home are the immediate dangers of the event that occurred?
- Has death, injury, or loss of property occurred to someone they know as a result of this particular catastrophe?
- How much on-going talk or news (TV, radio, social media, etc.) about the event is the child exposed to?
- Have children suffered previous major losses, or other traumatic disruptions and losses in their lives that may make them more vulnerable to heightened fear or sadness in response to the Uvalde tragedy?
- If children are already psychologically struggling, are there new symptoms or difficulties that have emerged in the aftermath of this recent tragedy?
Also, It's important to note that if your children are not attentive to the news or focused on the Uvalde tragedy, it does not mean they are insensitive to others. When their interests and daily lives are not disrupted or threatened, children and adolescents often continue to focus on the immediacy of life that is most familiar and predictable. Discussion with our school-age and adolescent children about the shootings is the best way to learn about the extent to which they may be quietly preoccupied and concerned.
How to answer questions children are likely to have about the tragedy
Our children’s questions provide an opportunity to learn what they are thinking and feeling. It is by listening carefully to their queries that we can begin to help them navigate what can feel like a frightening world.
Often what children need most is someone whom they trust to listen to their questions, accept their feelings, and be there for them. Don’t worry about knowing exactly the right thing to say—there is no answer that will make everything okay.
Here are some tips for responding to children’s questions:
- If children express anxiety and concern about traumatic events, they may be most concerned about the safety and stability of their immediate world of family, friends, and other important figures in their lives. Focus on these concerns first.
- Are we safe? If there is no immediate threat to family and friends, say so. Even in the midst of the horror that we may feel about the tragedy in Uvalde, and the powerful upset we may experience in our identification with the parents and family members of the victims, it may be very difficult to remember that school shootings, while alarmingly familiar in our country, remain extremely rare. It is important for parents and caregivers to be aware of the safety and security plans in place in their children’s schools in order to communicate to children that adults are doing—and will continue to do—everything possible to keep them safe.
- If your children ask questions about the aftermath of an event, ask what their concerns are first, so that you can respond to the specific details of their worries—not what you think their concerns are or should be.
- Respond to questions with the factual information you have. Do not speculate or repeat rumors, and resist over-explaining. The degree of detail children want and need to know will depend on their age and the specific nature of their concerns.
- While none of us can guarantee absolute and permanent safety in an uncertain world, it is vital for parents and caregivers to act as a buffer between vulnerable and frightened children and a world they can’t be expected to fully understand.
It’s OK if the discussion upsets them
It is natural that your children may get upset when talking about scary or disturbing things. As a parent, being able to listen to your children’s frightening ideas and feelings demonstrates your strength and unshakeable commitment to them. When there are scary things going on in the larger world around them, seeing that parents can still parent may be the most reassuring experience that frightened children can have.
Make sure your children realize it is okay to show you when they are upset. When they do, you have helped them take the important first steps in tolerating and coping with strong feelings and scary thoughts. If there is no one there for them, children may try to hide their feelings and become overwhelmed as they try to deal with their worries alone.
Even if they don’t ask any questions at first, be ready to talk about it
When upsetting things happen, it is a good idea to be ready to talk with your children. At first, older children may tell you that they don’t want or need to discuss it. Asking your children about their ideas and questions is often the best way of distinguishing between their concerns and our concerns in the aftermath of a traumatic event.
In most cases, it is not a good idea to force your children to talk with you about the event, but instead let them know that the door is open for them to come back and discuss their immediate concerns when they are ready.
How to know when children need more help than you can provide
The following are signs and symptoms of stress reactions commonly seen in response to real world events that threaten the sense of safety, predictability, and order in daily life:
- Depressed or irritable mood
- More needy or clingy and difficulty separating
- A resistant and defiant attitude
- Difficulty focusing on tasks or activities of daily life
- Social isolation or withdrawal
- Difficulty concentrating
- Physical complaints such as headaches or stomachaches
- Changes in appetite
- Sleep difficulties
- Toileting problems
- Pre-occupation with frightening thoughts
New or increased problematic behaviors and moods may be the only way children currently have to communicate that they are afraid and experiencing stress reactions. Children and adolescents who exhibit these difficulties may not be aware of these changes and, even when they are, may not recognize what is causing them.
Frightening events evoke a range of upsetting but common reactions in all of us. If your child continues to be particularly or unusually upset for several days—especially if they seem upset or worried about many things; are having trouble in school, at home, or with their friends; or experiencing trouble sleeping—then it is a good idea to speak with someone outside the family for advice.
You don’t need to wait until your child shows signs of being troubled. Trust your instincts and seek advice whenever you are concerned about the level of distress you are observing in your child.
Embracing your role as a parent
Helping children find words for the fears, confusion, and questions stirred up by the potentially traumatic event can be a crucial next step in helping them to take greater control of their experience.
When you directly demonstrate to your children your interest in what is on their minds, you are also offering them an opportunity to no longer be alone and letting them know that you are not afraid to address their fears, concerns, and questions.
Here are additional resources for families: