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How to Talk to Your Children About a Tragedy

I heard about the Colorado theater shooting Friday morning.   I was feeding my children breakfast when I glanced at the string of work emails on my phone.  I was momentarily confused when I saw the subject lines. I wondered,  “What had happened over night?’ I opened up an email and realized the magnitude.

It was like re-living Columbine all over again.  I was a reporter in local news then and I remember that day watching the news feeds coming in live – the images of people weeping, the worried parents and the sheer sadness of it all.

Last Friday was the same way at CNN.  Hearing the stories is tough:

-the young man who was celebrating his 27th birthday

-the young woman who dreamed of being a sports reporter and survived the Toronto mall shooting last month.

-a 6 year old girl who was at the movie with her mom. Her mother was critically injured in the shooting.

Like everyone, I asked the question why?  A question I still don’t know the answer to– Why?

Since Columbine I have become a mother.  I see life through the lens of a parent.

Colorado’s Governor John Hickenlooper said something Friday that really resonated with me.

“There’s not one of us, certainly anyone who has children, who doesn’t think about it being your child in that movie theater, your cousin’s child, your neighbor’s child. And that reality makes the pain and grief too intense for words.”

That’s the part that sucks about all of this. There are parents who for reasons that cannot be explained have lost their children.  Brothers who lost their sisters, Parents who lost a child. Spouses who lost their partners.

And how do you as a parent or grandparent explain to children this tragedy (or others like it).  My children are too young to know what’s going on.  But for children who are older and may be exposed to newspapers and news shows – how do you have the conversation that really horrible, terrible stuff can happen in the world –with no explanation?

I’m honestly not certain how I will have that future conversation or what I will say to my children when inevitably the next national tragedy occurs.

But I came across this from the Children’s Hospital of Colorado. It’s guide for parents

“How to Talk to Your Kids About Aurora’s Movie Theater Shooting

Marianne Wamboldt, MD, a physician at Children’s Colorado, offered this advice: “Most parents have all the skills necessary to help their children deal with these events. Children are very aware of their parent’s worries, especially during crises. Parents should admit their concerns to their children, but stress that they are coping with the concerns. Having an action plan as to how they, as a family, are going to help prevent further traumas is helpful for all.”



    Tips for parents

Our pediatric behavioral health experts at Children’s Colorado have outlined ways for parents to comfort and talk with their children about the tragedy.

Increase parental availability
Parents should be accessible to their kids physically and emotionally. Kids are likely to be scared and anxious in the aftermath of this crisis, and they may identify with the victims. Nurturing and supportive parents provide a safe space for children to vent their emotions.

Decrease media availability
Kids don’t understand the process behind a story they see on the news. Every time they see coverage of the crisis, they perceive it as happening again. Parents should be sensitive to this and limit the amount of crisis-related media their kids can access. Watching too much news coverage is stressful and traumatizing for adults as well, so parents limiting their watching news of the trauma can help them stay calmer for their child.

Display and promote stability
Kids will look to their parents for cues on how to react to a crisis. If parents are anxious, particularly about appearing in a public place, the children are likely to be nervous as well. Parents should project stability and calmness in relation to the event. Keeping your child’s routine as normal as possible gives children a sense of stability and helps them feel safe.

Be open to kids’ fears
After a crisis, kids are most likely to fear the possibility of fear returning. They are less afraid of the event happening again than they are of re-experiencing the anxiety of that day. Kids need to tell their story, so parents should give them plenty of time and space to do so. It is natural for younger children to play out their fears; it is okay to watch them play and/or interact with them in the play as a way of understanding their concerns.

Be prepared for questions
Many questions kids ask will be difficult, if not impossible to answer. Parents should explain that the shooting was a random event and discuss steps the community will take to ensure public safety. Remind kids that the public servants are there to protect them. Parents should consider their own skills and how they want to help with this community-wide problem, like getting involved politically to enforce gun control, promoting programs that prevent mental health problems, supporting families through their faith groups, etc. Voicing this problem solving to their children will give them a sense of control over their fears as well.

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Category: Parenting

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  1. This shooting was the one that broke me. Thanks for the good info about how to share it with our young ones.

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