Talking to Kids About Shootings

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A father embraced his daughter after being reunited outside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida on Wednesday. Credit Saul Martinez for the New York Times

 

In February, many of us were grieving the tragic loss of life in Florida. I hope it will still support some of you.

1. Limit exposure to footage

We want to watch and read about tragic events because we think more information will help us deal with them. However, repeated exposure to violent and upsetting content actually de-stabilizes us, increases our stress, and makes us LESS resilient over time. Get the information you need and move on to other strategies to support yourself and your kids, such as assuring them that schools are still safe places (while acknowledging that we all may FEEL nervous or scared or upset at the same time).

2. Support Expression of Feelings

Our tendency is sometimes to minimize kids’ feelings after a difficult event, telling them “it’s ok” or “don’t worry” or asking them to focus on something else as a distraction. While this is natural, feelings are guideposts to important unmet needs and values. Part of recovery is focusing on those feelings and understanding that they mean we have values that matter – and that is a good thing.

Begin with a moment of silence for all those who are affected by the violence in Florida and around the world. The truth is that violent acts happen every day in many communities around us, often involving young people, and do not get acknowledged in many cases.

You can then center an activity around a Feelings List like this one from CNVC – for instance, trying to identify all the different feelings we have after something awful happens. We can remind kids that all feelings are normal and ok – including relief, sadness, anger, and even numbness (which might be a way to protect one’s heart) – and that tears are just an indication that something is important to us.

3. Focus on Common Values Instead of Looking for Blame

In the aftermath of a tragedy, it’s natural to want to focus on what went wrong and who failed whom and how. However, this does not actually help kids (or ourselves) heal or move forward in a productive way.

Instead, help kids realize that underneath we are all connected by the same human values and needs, such as the need for safety, community, connection, belonging, love, and family. Again, you can do an activity using a Needs List like this one from CNVC to show how in tough times we are all one community coming together around the same desires.

4. Channel Feelings into Positive Actions 

This is a chance for your kids and you to come together and support each other and use your feelings of helplessness, fear or grief to do something positive. This helps everyone feel more empowered and less hopeless.

Begin by modeling good self-care by showing them that you have processed your own feelings with others and are giving yourself extra chicken soup for the soul today. Ask them what chicken soup for the soul would look like for each of them today?

In a similar vein, you can come up with a list of things we all do to help us get through tough times and post them around your home or classroom.

Then, turning outwards, you can make cards or write letters to the staff and families of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and send them to the principal. You can make handprints or leaves or hearts with positive messages and send them to Florida or hang them around your home or classroom. You can pray or send loving kindness to the people who have been affected by this, listing them one by one (students, staff, students who were injured, students who were killed, families who were affected, the family of the young man, and depending on your spiritual beliefs, the young man himself).

You can also ask kids what they would like to do, if anything, giving them some examples. The important thing is to model that during tough times we focus on expanding our hearts by being open about our feelings and being loving – and remembering that we are part of a bigger whole.

Other resources from the web

What mental health experts say to their kids about school shootings

Going back to school after a tragedy

Managing your distress in the aftermath of a shooting

Helping kids after a shooting from American School Counselor Association

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