By Emory Luce Baldwin, LCMFT and PEP Leader, Co-author of Parenting With Courage and Uncommon Sense
As the details unfold from the events in Las Vegas this past Sunday, parents are undoubtedly struggling with how much to tell their children about the tragedy and how to talk about news they may have heard or read. Here are a few thoughts to guide a parent’s approach to sharing pertinent information, providing comfort and reassurance, and addressing the issues honestly.
1. Reassure your children that they are okay and that they will be okay. Children are almost always afraid that they and their family might be in danger, too, when they learn about bad things happening elsewhere. Little kids don’t have the experience or knowledge to put a dangerous and traumatic event in context. Thus, anything they hear on the car radio or see on TV might seem to be happening right outside your door.
You can help your children by giving them useful information to help them gain that perspective. Show your children on a map how far away the event occurred. Describe how many hours and hours you would have to drive by car to get there. Let your children know that shootings are not impossible, but they are still rare. Sometimes the most concrete information is the most useful. My 6-year- old son finally felt reassured about the dangers of “bad guys shooting everybody out there” when I told him that, in all my many years, I had never seen anyone shoot a gun at someone, I
had never seen anyone get shot, and no one had ever shot a gun at me.
2. Hug your children more when scary stuff happens. Give your older children more physical contact, with back scratches and friendly pats. Touch is an infant’s first and most important soothing contact with other people. In difficult situations, touch is almost always comforting—for them and for you.
3. You probably know that you’ll need to change the radio station and/or turn off the TV to limit your children’s exposure to 24/7 news coverage of shocking and violent events. However, your children are still going to be exposed to at least some news which could be traumatizing for them. For better or for worse, much of that exposure will come from listening to other young children talking about the events.
As you can imagine, learning about scary, violent events from other young children means that your kids will get a very incomplete and unbalanced account of what happened. Therefore, please…
4. Check in with your children. Check in if they are asking questions. Check in if they aren’t asking questions. Check in if they seem upset. Check in if they seem unconcerned. Your checking in gives your children a chance to ask questions, to sift through what they have heard and what they have been thinking. It also gives them a chance to check in with themselves, to figure out and talk about: “How am I feeling about this? What more do I want to know? How do I make sense of this?”
Some good questions to ask when you are checking in are…
a) What are you hearing about (the people getting hurt in Las Vegas)?
b) How are you feeling about this? Are you okay, or not okay…?
And my favorite questions: c) Is there anything you are wondering about what happened? Do you have any questions about this?
Sometimes we are afraid of asking our kids questions like these, because we may be feeling angry or upset, ourselves, and we fear we will have no answers for their questions. Yet, children are comforted by just being able to talk about things they don’t understand. When parents say, “I don’t know the answer to that question, and I wish I knew, ‘why someone would do such a terrible thing?’ too,” kids are reassured that their feelings and questions are valid.
5. Notice the Good and Do Some Good. As child educator Fred Rogers famously wrote, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” Help your children notice the hundreds of bystanders, police, EMTs and other first responders who rush into danger to assist the hurt and the frightened. There truly are more people doing good things in the world than doing bad things, and we can draw our children’s attention to see them.
We are too far away to wait in line and donate blood, like the hundreds of people who did so in Las Vegas. Yet there are other ways we can help. Your children might want to do something to raise money to donate funds to support the victims and first responders in this or other tragedies. Or, your family might choose to contribute to humanitarian, peace, or advocacy organizations that work to reduce violence and the causes of violence. Offering your children the choice to forego some family pleasure (giving up the Saturday night takeout pizza or delaying a planned movie outing) to increase your donation can make their contribution more meaningful—and therefore valuable—to them.
Experiences of trauma tend to deplete our sense of personal agency, the sense that there is something I can do to make this situation better. Children, especially, often feel voiceless and powerless in a big and sometimes scary world. Yet, they too, want to do something to make things better to help themselves feel better and to contribute to making the world a better place. When scary and dangerous events happen, we can give our children comfort and reassure them that they are safe. As much as we might want to, we know we can’t give our children a perfectly safe and comfortable world to live in. Yet, as parents, what we can do is help our children understand their world, help them learn how to deal with hard times when they happen, and help them find their own sense of when something bad happens, I know there are things I can do to make the situation better and make myself feel better, too.