by Michelle Halm, MA, M.Ed, PEL, CT, Director, Buddy’s Place
In the wake of yet another mass shooting, many of us are experiencing a range of emotions from anger to fear, to despair. As adults, we find that even amid our struggle to understand these senseless acts, we have to respond to the needs of the children around us. It might be tempting to tell them they don’t need to worry, that they are safe, but it is not that simple.
I have read the Dear Lilly letter written by Donna Schuurman at the Dougy Center and it speaks to my feelings at this time, the sense of safety has been violated. Having conversations around tragedies and violent events is difficult and often does not happen because we do not know what to say. But not saying anything is not helpful, we need to have these conversations. We would like to share some resources to help you have these complex conversations:
How to Talk To Children About Tragic Events
Choose a comfortable setting: You will want to pick a quiet time and place where the child will feel at ease to listen and share. The presence of sensitive and trusted adults is important in the first conversations after a tragedy. Set a calm tone with soothing words. If your role allows, hold, and comfort the child.
Start with questions: Ask the child what they know about the event and what questions or concerns they may have. “What have you heard about this?” Follow their lead as to what questions they need answered.
Provide age-appropriate details: Provide truthful information and clear up any misconceptions the child may have. Placing blame is not helpful. Avoid euphemisms like, ‘Passed away’, ‘lost’ or ‘She’s/they’re in a better place,’ because they can be confusing for young children. It’s also okay to say “I don’t know” if you don’t have the answer to one of their questions. Leave out graphic details and instead provide simple facts:
“There was a very sad event that happened at _______. A person used a gun to hurt and kill people. It is difficult to understand why someone would want to cause harm like this.”
Share your feelings: Sharing how you feel gives permission to your child to open up and express their feelings about the event. Let the child know that you may also be sad or frustrated at times and talk about what you will do to take care of yourself when you are having big feelings.
Explore their feelings together: Invite children to express their feelings through art, journaling, identifying the color or their emotions, or through play with stuffed animals. Support children in talking about how they feel, in their words. Listen openly and validate their feelings.
““Feeling angry and sad is natural after hearing about or experiencing a scary event. What other words describe how you are feeling?”
Be prepared for possible reactions: Every child will respond differently based upon several factors, but here are some more common developmental reactions:
- Preschool: Young children may become clingy and regress to earlier behaviors (bed wetting, sucking their thumb). Avoid criticizing these behaviors.
- Elementary: Children may fear going to school, have trouble sleeping (nightmares), have trouble paying attention, and may replay the event over and over in their minds. They may complain of frequent headaches and stomachaches, which can be a sign that they are having trouble identifying what is bothering them. You may also notice a withdrawal from friends or favorite activities.
- Middle School: Children in this age range may have prolonged fear about their safety and have brief moments of grief (tears or aggressive outbursts). They may have challenges in school or want to avoid school altogether. There is also a risk for self-harm and suicidal thoughts – if suspected reach out promptly to a mental health professional, text the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1 (800) 273-8255 or call Pillars Community Health at 708-PILLARS (708-745-5277) and ask to speak to a crisis worker.
- High School: Older children may deny or hide that they are upset. Some teens may experience anger, depression, anxiety, fatigue, and sleeping problems. You may notice a change in appearance or social group. They may have difficulty with their academic performance and attendance. There is also a risk for self-harm and suicidal thoughts – if suspected reach out promptly to a mental health professional, text the Crisis Text Line at 741-741, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline1 (800) 273-8255 or call Pillars Community Health at 708-PILLARS (708-745-5277) and ask to speak to a crisis worker.
Help your child cope and process:
- Stay calm and model self-care: Tragedy affects all of us and it’s important to stay tuned to your own needs as you cope and process the tragic event.
- Safety Reassurance: Let the child know that you are together now and that you will do everything you can to keep them safe. Remind them that you will be there to help and answer any questions.
- Limit media exposure and adult conversations: Try to reduce exposure to graphic details as much as possible. Many children (and adults) will have a tough time getting these images out of their mind. However, kids will talk at school, you will not be able to shield them from everything. So, remember to check in regularly about what they see and hear. Children need to know that you are not hiding anything, and that you are open to talking about it.
- Encourage healthy expression of feelings: Young children may act out when they are worried, scared, or asking for help. Help children name their feelings: “scared” “sad” “angry”, and try to expand their emotional vocabulary using books and videos, such as Inside Out. Provide opportunities to express feelings in ways that won’t hurt – using words, journaling, art, or safe activities and movements.
- Spend extra time together: Connect by playing a game, walking, sports, singing, dancing, or reading together. This children’s book, A Terrible Thing Happened, is about a young raccoon who saw something awful happen. He tries to forget about it, but over time, it bothers him and makes his tummy feel sick. The story never goes into specifics about what “terrible thing”, which makes it helpful for discussing any type of tragic event.
- Commemorate and connect to community: Attend memorial activities when feasible and stay connected to your support network.
- Create an emergency safety plan: For younger children, share your preparation and plans for future emergencies. If your child is middle school or older, include them in the development of a safety plan. Having a plan will reduce anxiety or uncertainty about future disasters.
- Seek help: Pillars Community Health, Crisis Text Line, etc.
Pillars Community Health offers a range of behavioral health services, including crisis services available 24/7. You can access crisis services by calling 708-PILLARS. For a comprehensive description of services provided please go to Mental Health and Medical Care | Pillars Community Health
Additional resources for those having conversations with:
Pre-school and young children:
School-aged children and teens:
Pillars Community Health’s Buddy’s Place program provides grief support for children, teens, and their families. Buddy’s Place offers Monthly Gatherings each month and an 8 Week Session in the fall and spring. These services are provided at no cost to participants. Buddy’s Place also provides presentations to schools and community organizations. Buddy’s Place is a member of the National Alliance for Children’s Grief (NACG) NACG has a list of organizations across the United States.
Other grief and bereavement related recommended resources:
- National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement
- Coalition to Support Grieving Students
- New York Life Foundation: Bereavement Support
- National Child Traumatic Stress Network
- Eluna Network
- Dougy Center
- Judi’s House/JAG Institute – CBEM
- Speaking Grief
- What’s Your Grief (books for children, teens, and adults)