My blog this week was supposed to be about October being Dyslexia Awareness month and the Dyslexia Awareness Fair that is occurring on campus this Saturday. Instead, I woke up this morning, like many of us, to learn about the horrific mass shooting that occurred in Las Vegas. We grieve for those killed, the hundreds injured and the countless friends and family members who are impacted by this abhorrent violence. As educators and parents, we also search for how best to help our children process this tragedy and the media blitz that will follow. Today is Day 1 of news coverage but certainly this story will dominate the news cycle for several days. How children are processing the news today may be different than in a few days.
This is now the third time (Paris, Orlando attacks) within the past two years that I’ve written some version of this letter to our school community. That dizzying fact causes me a sea of emotions. In short, I hope for better for us and our children. As for speaking with our children, I’ve found guidance from several sources and have tried to summarize the takeaways most meaningful to me.
Be gentle with yourself. Parents often feel insecure about facilitating these conversations because no one teaches us how to do this. We often are concerned about saying the wrong thing or upsetting our child. I like how the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Healthy Children website addresses this. “Often what children need most is to have someone they trust listen to their questions, accept their feelings, and be there for them. Don’t worry about knowing the perfect thing to say – there is often no one answer that will make everything okay. Listen to their concerns and thoughts, answer their questions with simple, direct and honest responses, and provide reassurance and support. While we would all want to keep our children from ever having to hear about these events, reality does not allow this. Being silent on the issue won’t protect them from what happened, and could prevent them from understanding and coping with it. Remember that answers and reassurance should be at the level of the child’s understanding.”
Start with what they think they know. It’s best not to assume how much your child knows about the news. It’s likely that most children have heard something though. The most important next step is to ask them what questions they have. Let them lead the conversation. Don’t assume they have the same questions or worries as you. Be prepared to answer in a direct way. For elementary children, don’t answer questions they haven’t asked. If your child doesn’t want to talk, you probably shouldn’t force it, just make it clear that the door is open to talk later if they want. Often, children of all ages will find it easier to talk to you about this topic by telling you what other children are saying or feeling, instead of themselves. Middle Schoolers often find it uncomfortable to sit face-to-face and have “the talk.” You might consider talking with them while you’re also doing something else, like driving in the car together, doing chores, or even eating.
The Child Mind Institute states that parents’ goal should be to avoid encouraging frightening fantasies. For middle and high school children, listen for hidden questions or fears.
Honor and observe their emotional health. Let your children know it’s ok to feel sad or upset. Remember that children don’t always verbalize their concerns and anxiety to us. We can monitor their emotions through their behavior, physical response (i.e. headaches), appetite and sleep. Often, children express their feelings through their play and art.
Identify ways to manage stress. You are the expert on your child. If he is feeling anxious, review with him some strategies that have helped him calm down in the past, such as deep breathing, exercise or listening to music.
Reassure young children that they can feel safe. Acts of extreme violence remind all of us that we are never guaranteed safety, which can be unsettling. During these times, it’s important to try and reassure children that they can feel safe though. Don’t lie. Children know when adults are untruthful. As the beloved author and illustrator Maurice Sendak once said,
“Grown-ups desperately need to feel safe, and then they project onto the kids […] But what none of us seem to realize is how smart kids are.”
Instead of denying this event happened or isn’t sad, focus on the fact that the chances of them being personally affected by this type of violence is very low. It can also be helpful to reassure children what steps are being taken to keep them safe. We can talk about how our government, military, police officers, doctors, and emergency workers are working to ensure that these types of events don’t happen again.
This reassurance advice is based on trying to lower anxiety in children by having them understand the difference between possibility and probability. I admit this can be difficult for older children, not because they don’t understand but because it’s not satisfying any longer. These adolescents have just witnessed, in the last 16 months, the two deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history. There will be several adolescents who will not want to accept a low probability of violence affecting them personally as a sufficient answer. They are starting to view the world outside of themselves. I think this is developmentally appropriate. Again, it’s an opportunity for us to listen to our children and help them move forward in a socially conscious and responsible way.
Support children who want to do something more tangible. Older children in particular often want to take action. Sometimes this is a longer, more in-depth conversation. If so, be a good listener to their ideas and recommendations for making the world a safer place. Often, children want to do something that helps the survivors or memorializes the victims. The American Red Cross, Medical Reserve Corps, and state and local health agencies often are places to look to for children that want to help in some way. Of course, if there are policy actions that your child wants to advocate for, you can help them contact their congressperson or advocacy non-profits. These acts often provide children a sense of control during a vulnerable time, or a sense of closure.
Avoid over-exposure to news media. Like so many other things, kids are paying attention to your media consumption even when you’re not aware of it. The younger the child is, the more we want to protect them from constant replays of the tragic events. Very young children often cannot differentiate between TV images and their own reality. Very young children can also have difficulty understanding that the scary event is not happening over-and-over again, and is simply being replayed. Consider what you’re consuming on TV, the Internet, and radio when your children are present. Even if the last media report is relatively benign, if a child has consumed several stories in a short period, that last benign report might tip their emotional scales.
Older children may want to watch the news. One tip that healthychildren.org gives is to DVR the news, or watch the Internet video ahead of time so you can judge its content. This also allows you to pause and have a discussion about specific parts of the report. Of course, avoid graphic images and descriptions. This can be difficult with older children who are using social media unsupervised. We all know what our social media feeds look like. Our children’s Facebook or Twitter feeds probably aren’t much different. They could scroll for a couple minutes and be exposed to hundreds of posts about the news (some accurate, some not).
Ask for what you need. For example, the Erikson Institute recommends that if you’re at a restaurant and they are showing the news on TV, kindly ask the manager to turn the channel or move your table to a “safer” location. This may also mean asking friends and family not to discuss the event around your child right now.
Keep routines. At home, just like at school, routines can be very comforting, especially for anxious children. Of course, be flexible enough to respond to the needs that your child is presenting with. For example, kids may have a more difficult time than usual getting ready for bed or falling asleep.
Be careful not to stereotype. Use specific, individualizing language, not generalizations. This applies to identity aspects like country of origin, race, gender, ethnicity, religion and political parties. Children, even older ones, can easily generalize negative comments. For example, if you disagree with something that one political figure says, point out to your kids that your view is that of that one specific person, who may not represent the views of everyone who belongs to that party. Also, help children differentiate between fact and opinion, especially as this line gets increasingly blurred by a partisan divide amongst media outlets. Model this distinction with your children. When wanting to express an opinion, prompt children to start statements with “I believe” or “I think.”
Acknowledge the acts of humanity. For us of a certain age, Mr. Rogers visited our living rooms each day with messages of peace and community. When these types of tragedies occur, I’m reminded of Fred Rogers’ wise words about scary news.
“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” To this day, especially in times of “disaster,” I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.”
It can be helpful to highlight those individuals who helped during the Vegas attack, its immediate aftermath and in the days that follow. For example, there are images of people lining up at blood donation centers in Las Vegas at 4:00am this morning. These stories don’t diminish the sorrow but they are powerful reminders to kids that there is a lot of good in this world and that when bad things happen, good people respond with kindness, compassion and a desire to help.
For more information on how to speak with your child, you may want to visit Healthy Children, the National Association of School Psychologists, National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement, The Clay Center for Young Minds, and Child Mind Institute.