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Talking To Kids About Tragic Events

Advice from a local expert on approaching your child’s—and your own— fear, anxiety, and grief.

Children and adults alike struggle to process the barrage of tragic events we see in the news and on social media. And when news like the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas happens, it seems impossible to process not only your own feelings, but also to find the right way to help your children process. We reached out to Dr. Micki Burns, the chief clinical officer of Judi’s House, a Denver nonprofit that supports children and families coping with loss, for answers to some common questions.

How should parents talk to kids about school shootings?

Burns encourages parents to have intentional, developmentally appropriate conversations with their children about these events. “By starting these conversations, you set the stage for an ongoing, child-focused dialogue where your child sees you as their center of stability and safety,” she says. “They will know they can come to you for clarity and reassurance if rumors and exaggerations start to circulate.”

Should very little children be involved in the conversations?

With today’s technology, information spreads quickly and reaches the youngest children, Burns notes. “If your child goes to school or daycare, there is a chance they have been exposed to tragedy. Although it is important to shield your child from the barrage of news coverage, it is necessary that you are having conversations to understand what they’ve heard.”

Here’s an age-by-age look at how kids may process the information, according to Burns:

How can a parent address the fears their child may have about going to school?

First, says Burns, honestly assess your own fears. “Parents place a lot of trust in their community to care for their children and keep them safe,” she says. “If you have anxiety about your child going to school, you may be directly or indirectly communicating this to your child.

“If your child is anxious about attending school, you can be supportive by listening to their concerns and reflecting it back to them without invalidating their experience. This can open space to discuss what helps them feel safe at school and who they can turn to if their worries become overwhelming.”

“It is ok to keep them home for a day if their concerns are leading to upsetting emotional or physical symptoms. Ultimately, maintaining normal routines and providing consistent, predictable limits will also help children feel safe during this unsettling time. If their requests to miss school due to fear or anxiety are recurring and frequent, it’s time to talk with your child’s pediatrician and teacher.”

What signs may indicate that a child is struggling on a deeper level with news of tragic events?

Burns encourages parents to talk with their children and monitor changes in their behaviors. “You are the expert on your family. You likely have a sense of when they are struggling beyond their own personal norm,” she says.

Some possible signs that children are struggling:

“Parents and caregivers often question their influence in times of uncertainty. Remember that you are who they (your children) look to for safety,” says Burns. “Provide hope that things will get better with time, while encouraging them to share if things stay the same or get worse.”

“If you are noticing significant changes based on the intensity and duration of your child’s reactions to the tragedy, trust your instincts. You do not need to be bashful about advocating for and seeking support for your child.”

What can parents do to handle our own fears, anxiety, and grief, so that it doesn’t add to our child’s reaction?

Check your own worries and fears before talking to your child, says Burns. “If you are not in a place to convey security, it may not be the best time to address the subject. Shore up your own supports by reaching out to your network. As parents and caregivers, we need to have a place to process adult-size worries so that we can hold space and attention for the concerns of the children in our care.”

How can parents help their children address grief in a healthy way?

Although universal, grief is unique to each person, according to Burns, who suggests reading developmentally appropriate books about grief, or having conversations while engaging in other activities such as driving to soccer practice, eating dinner, or playing a game. This creates a comfortable space for kids to be honest and less guarded.

“In these situations, remember that your role is to listen, not to fix the situation. Grief is something we learn to manage. Do your best to reflect back what you hear, gaining clarification while letting your child know you value their experience,” says Burns. “Elicit your child’s thoughts or suggestions about how they plan to cope. This may include asking what they believe other kids or families do in similar situations. Finally request permission to share your thoughts, reflections, and suggestions about how you might proceed.”

Many families in Colorado have been directly affected by mass shootings or gun violence. How might this impact them? How can other families help?

“It is likely that the school shooting in Texas will bring forth trauma and anxiety for families who have personal experience with similar events here in Colorado,” says Burns. “It is important to recognize those fears, be honest about your feelings, and to seek comfort and support from friends, family, neighbors, clergy, or behavioral health professionals.”

“Our inclination is often to avoid difficult conversations, but it is important to allow people a safe space to express their feelings,” Burns says. “Families can help other families by listening. Be supportive, not judgmental. Remember that connection and belonging are powerful resources that we all have the ability to provide.”

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