NEW: How To Talk To Children About School Shootings—RI Expert

Thursday, January 31, 2013


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Today's tragic events following so close on those in Newtown, Connecticut, raise many questions and fears in children. Do you need to discuss the details, and what age is appropriate for what kind of discussion?

As the violent details of today's shooting at an Atlanta middle school unfold on the news and across social media platforms including Facebook and Twitter, children and teens will no doubt encounter reports and possibly images. GoLocalProv spoke with Susan Erstling, LICSW, PhD, Senior Vice President at Family Service of Rhode Island and a nationally recognized leader in the trauma, about what parents and other adults can do to help manage this traumatic news.

1. Events in Atlanta remind us of tragic events in CT which remain everywhere, including on Facebook, where many young people are during school hours. How should parents prepare for discussing these events with their children?

Parents should be aware that their children may have heard about this terrible incident, and find out what their children are thinking and questioning. It is important to be open to conversations, as children need much reassurance and guidance at this time. Parents themselves are affected by this information so we have to work hard not to show too much fear and anxiety as children pick that up.

At times like this, remember that the biggest worries are will this happen to me or my family, so we do everything we can to make children feel safe and secure. It may mean staying home and limiting activities. It may mean that small children will regress a little and need much closeness and comfort. Older children may be reluctant to express their fears and worry may show in their behavior, so parents should watch for changes. Parents also need to rely on each other, their supports, religious organizations also. Most schools these days have crisis teams and plans and should be putting them into action. Parents should think about how much the TV is on in their home, and limit it appropriately.

2. How young is too young to discuss this event?

It is difficult to put an age limit on how young is too young to discuss this event, because if children have seen or heard about it, they need to have it acknowledged and addressed by parents. Answers will depend on the developmental level of the child. Children’s reactions come in all forms, including fears, anger, sleep problems, eating problems, which may not seem related but can indicate worries.

3. The fact that this shooting occurred at an elementary school is compounding the fear around this event. These schools are normally considered such safe places. What should parents be thinking about and communicating to children about this grim violation?

We should tell our children that adults are working hard to keep them safe, and if they have fears, they should talk about them. We like to tell our children that adults such as teachers, police officers, firemen, etc. are all doing everything they can to protect our safety. We also tell them that the feelings they have may last a while, but eventually they will go away.

4. Should parents skirt the details of this event when discussing with their kids, as the details are so violent and threatening? 

Parents should not think so much about what to tell their children about the event, but elicit what their children are wondering and or are thinking about and doing everything they can to keep them safe. Sometimes we do need to say that there are these rare events which don’t make sense but we will help them get over it, and we will get  back to normal. Routines are very important at times like these. Children who have had other traumatic experiences are most vulnerable. 

5. What local resources are available for families struggling with this issue at home today and going forward?

Very often, schools will provide resources for families, but there are other agencies to rely on . Usually, a reaction will subside in 30 days or so, however, if it persists parents can talk with their family physicians, family agencies, or mental  health centers. At Family Service of RI, we have a Children’s Trauma Team to provide services for children exposed to violence, or trauma. We are a site of the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, which has an excellent website for resources


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