On Sunday night, fifty-nine people lost their lives in the worst mass-shooting that has ever taken place on American soil. Five hundred more were wounded, and countless others were left traumatized and terrified after the attack.
After such a display of extreme violence and hatred, how can we simply go back to normal? And how can parents explain this act of terror to their children?
Luckily, there are tools that can help us to deal with this crisis and others like it. The National Association of School Psychologists has a checklist of tips that can help children cope with terrorism, and whether you are a parent, teacher, or simply someone who is struggling to make sense of all this death and violence, the tips below can greatly help.
I have taken many of the NASP tips and added my own ideas based on my experience treating children and adults who have been rocked by traumatic events. Consider the following:
• Model calmness and control. While I always encourage parents to be honest with their kids about their emotions, you need to realize that your children are going to be looking to you and mirroring your emotions during this time. Is Mom scared? Does Dad seem worried? Aunt Katie says this is ‘end times.’ What does that mean? Are we going to die?
Kids always ‘entrain’ to their parents (meaning they match our energy), but especially during times of uncertainty and fear. They don’t know how they are supposed to feel, so they are going to look to you first. So, that means that you should really get clear and calm emotionally when you are around your kids. Meditate for 10-15 minutes in the car before picking them up from school. Keep the news off and play music instead. Read together instead of getting on Facebook. Unhook from the mania going on right now and instead get clear on your intention (creating a space of peace and calm in your home) and live that intention out. Maybe that will mean more quiet dinners at home instead of eating out. Maybe it will mean putting flowers on the table or doing an art project with your kids. Maybe it will mean going for a hike instead of going to the football game. However you choose to create peace and serenity. I am a big fan of checking out of the nastiness of the world, at least for a little but each day and especially when with our children.
• Talk honestly with your older kids. It’s likely that older kids will hear plenty of rumors and horrible details at school regarding the shooting. Carve out a specific time each evening (even just 15 minutes) where your kids can tell you what they heard (“I heard he was crazy” or “I heard there were 2 shooters and they didn’t find the other one yet” or “I heard the cops didn’t come because they don’t care about country music fans”). Yes, lots of these rumors might sound crazy or convoluted, but resist the urge to laugh. Strip away all the melodrama and misinformation and help your child to learn the simple facts in an age-appropriate way (“Many people died, but there was only one shooter, and he can’t hurt anyone ever again.”)
And, while I don’t ever support lying to your kids when they come to you with big questions, if there is ever a question you don’t feel comfortable answering, you can honestly say, “I don’t know how to answer that right now. Can I do some research and get back to you?” Even if you know the answer (for example, if they ask how many people died, or why the gunman did it), you can take some quiet time to think of the best way to phrase your answer.
Also, as you will notice above, I suggested a set time in which you talk to your kids. Give it a start time and end time, and let your kids know ahead of time about the schedule (maybe even use an egg timer or the timer on your phone). Why? Because it’s important to not allow this event to take over your entire family time and overshadow everyone’s thoughts and emotions. By setting a timer, you are telling your kids, “Scary things happen. But we can get through it as a family. And we can keep going. We don’t have to get stuck in it. We don’t have to be trapped in the badness. We can move forward and embrace the present moment, because that is where our true power lies.” This can even become a great teachable moment for you to discuss the concept of resilience…the idea that bad things are always going to happen, but we are strong enough to handle it, and we can rely on this strength to get us through and to help us find solutions to these issues.
• Avoid family arguments. If you know that your uncle is a big NRA fan or that your sister is a staunch liberal who thinks guns are ruining America, ask them ahead of time to watch their conversations around your kids. You might say something like, “Johnny has been having some nightmares about the Vegas shooting. I would really appreciate it if you didn’t discuss guns or anything related to Vegas during our family dinner tonight.” If they can’t respect your boundaries, leave.
• Point out the safety measures that exist in your community. Make sure your child(ren) feel safe in their school, churches, temples, parks, and community. Point out the security camera in front of the public library. Show them the sign-in sheet at school that prevents strangers from taking other people’s kids. Talk about the fact that mass shootings are actually quite rare and that crime is on the decline in most cities. Stress that despite the uncertainty of life, we are lucky to live in a country that is actually quite safe. You might even take an especially worried kid to the fire station or the police station to meet the people who work to keep them safe.
Lastly, put your foot down when it comes to any racially motivated jokes or teasing. It’s not uncommon for kids to come home from school and repeat racist things that they heard, either without realizing it or because they are feeling out your response (“Does Mom think this is okay? Does Dad think Muslims are terrorists?”). Be firm and clear that you don’t tolerate or support any racist ideology. Again, your kids are going to be looking to you as their models during this time, now more than ever. We can be the models of peace, kindness and strength that we want to see in the world. We can be the change, and we can show our children how to be the change as well.