As I made my counseling rounds through St. Anne’s, a pre-k to eighth-grade school on March 23, I had some deep conversations with the middle school and fifth-grade classes about the mass shooting at a King Soopers in Boulder the day before.
After I finished, a first-grade teacher asked me to speak with two students she’d overheard that morning as they talked about the incident. While we sat outside on a bench, the boys shared how their parents told them the news. They both said: “It is really sad, but we knew we shouldn’t talk to our classmates about it in school.” These sweet children made me reflect on the question: At what age should parents talk to their children about traumatic issues in the world and how?
In answering this question, you should acknowledge your right to explain things to your child in a way you feel is best for their personal development. As a parent myself, I felt my children should hear about many facts of life at home, as opposed to finding out about them on the school playground. In situations where an event may receive national news coverage, I would advise parents of students in sixth grade or above to immediately address the issue. In today’s world of cell phones, digital and social media, they are going to find out—and fast.
Children in fifth grade, ages 10 to 11, are aware of what’s going on in the world. It is not atypical for them to hear far more about harsh realities than you could have ever imagined. For third and fourth graders, I suggest a wait-and see-approach to alerting them. If there are students in these grades with older siblings, remember that knowledge trickles down on the playground and in the home. If you decide not to share about the news, you can always go with the “What did you talk about at school today?” query when they come home. You can also look for guidance from your child’s teachers.
For the youngest kids, kindergarten to second grade, you may decide not to elaborate on the details if you are concerned about their possible anxiety associated with these topics, or you can take the approach my first-graders’ parents took above.
This is also a tricky topic for teachers if it comes to light in morning discussions. After 9/11, I triaged all classrooms for first grade and up. I employed a different communication content approach and strategy for each grade, as appropriate. Give your child’s teacher a heads up if you are discussing the issue at home so they have time to prepare.
Once you have made the decision to talk with your child, consider these guidelines for your chat:
- Start with experiencing and managing your own parental emotions. While it’s okay for children to see that you are upset, you don’t want them to be overwhelmed by your reaction.
- Assure them that their thoughts, emotions, and perspectives are warranted. With siblings, reinforce that there should be no judgement amongst one another.
- When sharing the news, be honest, brief, and age appropriate.
- Help clarify and validate what your child is feeling. Kids commonly ask why things happened and express feelings of shock, anger, sadness, and anxiety.
- Since many of us are used to seeing our grocery store workers on a regular basis, talk to your children about how these “family friends” must be feeling.
- Reinforce that schools, movie theaters, and grocery stores are still safe places despite examples of disruption. Older children can understand statistical probabilities around episodes of violence.
- Discuss how their school has drills to teach them how to stay safe. While these can be upsetting, it is better than being unprepared.
- Limit news coverage with younger children. For older students, encourage them to gain their news from established journalism sources rather than social media.
- As a family, discuss what you can do to make a difference. Then make an actionable plan. This could range from contributing money for victims, becoming engaged in activism around societal issues, lighting candles, saying a prayer, taking a card or flowers to your local store or police station, or making a poster for the front yard to show support for victims of the tragedy.
- Above all, kids need a sense of hope and security for the future. Tell them that things are going to be okay, even if you are having a hard time believing it yourself.
At the end of the day, be open, honest, and communicative. Be prepared to help your children process in their own ways, whether similar to or different from yours.
Craig A. Knippenberg, LCSW, M.Div., serves as the mental health consultant for St. Anne’s Episcopal School. He has provided child and family counseling services for more than 35 years and is the founder of Knippenberg, Patterson, Langley and Associates . He is also the author of Wired and Connected: Brain-Based Solutions To Ensure Your Child’s Social and Emotional Success (Illumify Media Global, 2019). Connect with Knippenberg through his blog at www.adventuredad.org, on Facebook @coloradomentalhealth, and through his podcast, Legit Parenting: Strategies for Actual (Imperfect) Parents to Build Resilient Kids and Families.