How to talk to your child about mass shootings

In the wake of the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history, many parents are faced with a difficult question: what should I say to my child?

Between social media and the school lunchroom, news travels fast. For school-age kids, it’s almost inevitable they’ve heard many things about the mass shooting in Las Vegas- and not all of them may be true.

Here is some advice from two psychologists on how to work through the day’s events with your child:

Plan Ahead

One way to make sure you handle the situation appropriately is planning ahead, according to pediatric psychologist Dr. Colleen Cicchetti of Lurie Children’s Hospital.

You never know when your child will work up the courage to ask or when the subject could come up. By planning ahead you will have time to decide how much information is developmentally appropriate for your child and what you should say.

It also gives you time to tune in to the news privately, or check stories online, instead of exposing your child to the news directly.

“I’m not a big fan of having the TV news going in the house in front of any kid younger than a teenager,” Dr. Cicchetti said “The visual imagery and sounds of what they are seeing can be really disturbing.”

Remain calm

When the subject does come up, maintaining a calm, even demeanor when discussing it is important because your child will mirror your response, according to educational psychologist Dr. Michele Borba.

“Stay calm - even though you may be hurting inside,” Dr. Borba said.

Throughout the conversation, it’s easy to get tripped up worrying about what to say, but really it’s how you say it that’s most important.

Listen

Experts say it’s best to begin the conversation with a question like: “Did you hear about anything that happened today?”

“Find out where they’re coming from, because very often the stories they’re hearing - if you can believe it - can be actually worse,” Dr. Borba said.

Listen to make sure they have the correct facts, experts say, and correct any misperceptions they may have. In particular, little children often think events in the news are taking place right next door.  They don’t have a sense that it isn’t in their neighborhood.

Above all, listening is the most important, and Dr. Borba recommends parents spend twice as much time listening as talking.

Ask what they are worrying about

As you talk about the day’s events, try to determine how they are feeling about them, and ease their concerns as they come up.

One way you can help calm any anxiety they may feel is by reminding them of the things adults do to keep them safe every day. Dr. Cicchetti suggests talking about how from home to school, there are security and other measures in place to make sure they are protected.

It also may take time for their emotional response to become clear, Dr. Borba says, because some children appear to be fine initially but can be affected later, especially as kids continue to talk about it at school. So patience is key as well.

Don’t give them too much information

Instead of trying to paint a complete picture, what you’re really trying to do is help your child figure out and process the information in a calm manner.

“Hear where they’re coming from – but don’t give them too much information,” Dr. Borba said.

As you listen, correct their misperceptions – but don’t give them too much to think about. Instead, give them a few nuggets of information at a time so they can process it.

Dr. Borba said if a particularly graphic image should come up, instead of trying to discuss it directly, it’s better to shift the conversation to the overall situation.

Help them channel their anxiety

Depending on their level of development, finding a way to channel their feelings could help them feel better as well.

For younger children, Dr. Cicchetti said something simple like saying a prayer before going to sleep or donating money to help victims can help. As they get older the question about what to do can become more complicated as they’re aware of larger issues, but there are still ways they can get involved.

Give them hope for the future

Even before this event, there has been an upsurge in kids’ concern about their personal safety, Dr. Borba says. So in addition to making sure they have a correct understanding of the facts, emphasizing that they are safe is important.

“Tell children the world still is a good, safe place, this is just one of those horrible, horrific instances,” Dr. Borba said.

Bringing up some of the positive aspects can help them have a more positive outlook as well. So talk about the first responders who rushed to the scene, Good Samaritans who put themselves at risk to help others, and the long lines of people waiting to donate blood.

You can remind your child – and yourself – that while tragedies like this show the darkest side of humanity, they can bring out the best in us as well.

Dr. Michele Borba is an educational psychologist and the author of UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World

Dr. Colleen Cicchetti is a pediatric psychologist at Lurie Children’s Hospital

You can watch the video below for more information about how to talk to kids about violence: