Children and teenagers are better able to cope with upsetting news when they understand more about the event. They need information just as adults do. In the wake of the recent tragic shooting in Orlando, FL, here are some things you can share with your students’ parents to help them when discussing the event with their children.
Where to Begin
Start by asking your child or teenager what they already understand about the shooting. They have likely heard about it on TV, at school, or from their friends. However, much of their information may not be accurate. As they explain what they know about the Orlando shooting, you can figure out what it is they don’t already know or understand.
Look for misunderstandings or frightening rumors. Tell the truth and do not try to mislead them “for their own good.” Children of different ages understand and react differently according to their developmental age and unique personal experiences. It is important to remember that we cannot assume that children’s worries are the same as our own. When we listen to our children and come to understand their feelings and worries, we can better help them make sense of these experiences and how they affect us all.
The amount of details that children will find useful will depend upon their age. The older the child is, the more details will likely be needed to answer their concerns. Provide the basic information in simple and direct terms and then ask for questions. Take your cues from your child in determining how much information to provide. Older children may wish to discuss the larger implications of the event. Provide reassurance whenever possible, such as, “our government and police are taking steps to protect us from something like this happening again.” Terrorist acts like this remind us all that we are never completely safe—but now is the best time to reassure children that they can and should feel safe in their school, home, and community.
After a tragic event, we all wonder what we could have done to prevent this from happening. Even when it is obvious that there is nothing your child or teenager could have done to prevent or minimize the crisis, they may still feel helpless and wish they could have changed what happened. Let children know that this is a normal reaction; we all wish that there is something we could have done to prevent this or any tragedy. Instead, suggest that together you and your child can concentrate on what can be done now to help those most directly affected and to ensure safety, tolerance, and acceptance in our communities.
In some ways, blaming is a way to feel as if you can regain control of uncomfortable feelings. While it is natural to engage in thoughts of blame, this doesn’t ease the immediate feelings of grief and fear—nor does it provide any solutions for the future. It is understandable that people would be angry at the individuals who commit acts of terrorism and hatred, but sadly, sometimes people are also angry at those people who are easier to find and blame—such as people who look like they might belong to the group that was responsible. Children should be told that although it is normal to feel angry, terrorists do not represent a particular race or ethnic group.
The Orlando shooting may also cause children and teenagers to become frightened that they may be targeted because others do not approve of who they are. Remind them that we as Americans take pride in having citizens of many different races, sexual orientations, and ethnic backgrounds. This is a time to join together and continue to be inclusive, accepting, and supportive to all who seek peace.
Tackling Difficult Questions
Often what children and teenagers 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 no answer that will make everything okay. Listen to their concerns and thoughts, answer their questions with simple, direct, and honest responses, and provide appropriate reassurance and support.
Handling Their Reactions
During these discussions, children may show that they are upset—they may cry, get anxious or cranky, or show you in some other way that they are upset. Remember, it is the events that are upsetting them, not the discussion. Talking about the event will permit them the opportunity to show you how upset they really are. This is the first step in coping with their feelings and adjusting to their new understanding of the world. Pause the conversation periodically so that you can provide support and comfort to your child and ask if he or she wishes to continue the discussion at another time.
When You Have to Start the Conversation
When a major crisis of this nature occurs, it is a good idea to bring the topic up with your children, no matter how young they are. At first, older children and teenagers may tell you that they don’t want or need to discuss it. It is generally not a good idea to force them to talk with you, but do keep the door open for them to come back and discuss it later. Be available when your child is ready to talk, but let them choose the time.
Should your child or teenager continue to be very upset for several days and is unable to recover from their fears, or they are having trouble in school, at home, or with their friends, then it is a good idea to speak with someone outside the family for advice. The Orlando shooting may have triggered other distressing experiences, worries, or concerns of your child. You may wish to speak with your child’s teacher or school counseling services, pediatrician, mental health counselor, or member of the clergy for advice. Please remember that you shouldn’t wait until you think they need counseling —you should take advantage of counseling and support whenever you think it will be helpful.
Where to Turn for More Answers
Visit the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement, the Coalition to Support Grieving Students (NASSP is a founding member), the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, or the National Association of School Psychologists.