With yet another mass school shooting, this time at a school in Texas, that claimed the lives of 19 children and 2 teachers, parents of school-aged children are struggling to find the words to comfort their kids. The American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Psychiatric Association generally recommend avoiding the topic until children are 8 years old, but it depends on the child and whether he or she was directly affected by the event.
“If it doesn’t directly affect your family, kids under eight do not need to hear about this,” said Dr. Deborah Gilboa, a board-certified family physician who is a parenting expert and has four boys of her own. But she told TODAY that if your younger children may be at risk of hearing the news from others, it is best to discuss mass shootings even at that age.
“First, you have to process your own emotional response,” she said. “What you do will affect them more than what you say. Have your first reaction away from your child.”
For preschool students to those in kindergarten, the expert recommends a “keep it simple” approach. “You are going to give a one-sentence story to anyone under 6,” she said.
For elementary school children, shield them from watching the news because the images will stick with them longer than words. This age group will ask more questions, so be prepared to respond with as much information as you feel comfortable sharing.
Gilboa says that parents should ask tweens if they have heard the news about the shooting, and then listen to their feelings. “This becomes a great conversation of their values and your values and do not focus on the particular gore but more on the person you are raising,” she told TODAY.
Teenagers should be approached in a similar manner but expect more challenges with this age group.
“Teenagers are looking for hypocrisy and solution and this generation believes in collaboration and social justice,” she said, adding that teens will likely ask their parents, “What are you doing about it?” This question provides an opportunity for mutual cooperation and a way to teach our children to work for change, which builds resiliency.
“I think for anyone to take action makes us feel more effective,” Gilboa said, adding that it is still important for parents to listen to the feelings expressed by their teenagers. “What we want our kids to do when they see something is wrong is try to fix it.”
Dr. Robin Gurwitch, a psychologist and professor at Duke University Medical Center, underlined the importance of addressing the latest tragedy with teenagers.
“For the majority of teenagers, school is a safe and supporting environment,” she told ABC News after the 2018 shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida. “So, when a shooting happens at a school, it undermines our sort of worldview about where I can be that is a safe place,” she said.
“We really want to wrap our arms around them and make them feel safe,” said Gurwitch, a member of the National Child Traumatic Stress Network. “But part of being a parent is willingness to discuss difficult topics. “To believe that children don’t know that these events occur is wishful thinking,” she said. “We live in an age where we can go online and see live feed of people leaving the school, of responders, it’s updated every few moments.”
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