End-of-school activities are filling up calendars across the country, and traditionally, this is a time of relaxation, smiles and celebration.
Unfortunately this year, after the shooting that killed 19 elementary school students and two adults in Uvalde, Texas, the end of school will be marked with moments of silence, prayers and tear-filled auditoriums and classrooms.
It's natural to wonder: how should parents and trusted adults talk to children about this tragedy?
Tips from a Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist
There’s no single approach to addressing tragedies with children. The "best" way depends upon how parents approach it and the child’s age and developmental level.
Children are often aware of news before parents hear about it. You may prefer to shield children from the news, then find that they've overheard others discussing it at school or sports.
What's important is that you meet kids where they are, depending on age and their level of exposure to information. "Let them speak and ask questions," said Nicole Thomas, MD, child and adolescent psychiatrist, Morristown Medical Center and Atlantic Behavioral Health.
"Reassurance is important when children are anxious and worried," she continued, adding that it's crucial to let them know that parents and guardians are there to protect them – even if they don't have answers about why something happened.
For younger children, who are not exposed to the news, it may be a good idea for parents to be aware of how schools are going to address these issues: both in terms of security, and in terms of discussions they are having with the children to help them process the information they are receiving.
"If your child's school is talking about it with the kids, it needs to be on your radar too," Thomas said.
However, before adults talk to kids about this - or any - tragedy, they must make sure they have processed their own emotional response. Your emotional state will affect your children more than what you say, no matter how thoughtful are the words you use, Thomas advised.
“If you notice a kid is struggling with exposure to the media, consider limiting their exposure to it," Thomas cautioned. “For children and adolescents, it is important for parents to discuss their concerns and be present to answer their questions.”
Finally, parents should monitor their kids and flag any issues to address with school officials and medical professionals. Regularly check-in, at mealtimes or in the car when there is more time to talk and monitor how your loved ones are coping. Provide extra time, attention, and patience.
A Parent's Checklist for Difficult Conversations
Clinical psychologist Christopher Lynch, PhD, director of pediatric behavioral medicine for Goryeb Children’s Hospital shared some best practices for having difficult conversations with children:
- Provide information honestly but at a level the child can process
- Limit media exposure
- For older kids find out what they heard, where they are getting their information from and clarify as necessary
- Emphasize that these events are rare
- Emphasize what we are all doing to keep them safe
- Maintain expectations for behavior
- Continue with routines including sending your children into school
- Find out what resources your own school is offering as many schools are offering counseling to those who need it
- Seek professional guidance if your child develops fears or behavioral concerns
For more resources, consider Parent Guidelines for Helping Youth After the Recent Shooting from the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN) or How to Talk to Children About Mass Shootings from the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP)