A teenaged gunman killed 19 children and two adults inside a rural Texas elementary school May 24. Adding to the horror: the details around the police department’s decision to delay entering the classroom.
And as the nation grapples with another mass shooting, parents and caregivers struggle with what to tell their children.
How do they explain something they don’t understand themselves?
Jaren Doby, a psychotherapist and social worker with Novant Health Psychiatric Associates - Randolph, says first, adults need to be calm and steady before starting any conversation along these lines with a child.
Children will take their cues from the adults in their lives. And if those adults show fear and anxiety, a child will also be afraid and anxious.
Starting the conversation
Ask the child what they know. Ask them what they understand. Ask them if they are OK.
Doby says it’s important to let the child guide the conversation, and not to ask leading questions. For example, ask a child how the shooting makes them feel, not if it makes them sad or afraid.
Don’t tell them what they need, ask them. Let them express, or try to, what would make them feel better, or safer.
And be truthful. Bad things happen. Doby says adults shouldn’t push the fear factor, but they do want to make children aware of what is happening in the world. These are frightening events and being able to identify and normalize that is also a very scary thing. But, he says, it’s honest.
Some parents may instinctively shield their children from learning about traumatic events. But Doby says having these conversations early and talking to children about tragedies can give them the space they need within their families and homes to express themselves.
These conversations all depend on a child’s maturity level, which should also guide a parent or caregiver as they start a conversation.
A child’s fears
What if a child is too scared to go to school? Should a parent push them to go, to just “get over it?”
No. A mass shooting is a traumatic event, and people respond to trauma differently.
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Doby says forcing children to return to school before they are ready can further traumatize them, with the potential for severe repercussions.
How to tell if a child needs mental health help
If a child isn’t coping well, there will likely be signs that they need help.
Doby says to look for changes in behavior. They could be gradual or immediate – things like differences in sleeping patterns, eating habits or moods.
The next step: Assess the child’s support system. Engage the people who have a positive impact on the child. If that’s not enough, Doby says it’s time to get professional help.
Seeking professional help
If someone is experiencing a mental health crisis and could pose an immediate danger to themselves or others, call 911 or bring the person to an emergency room.
If a child needs professional therapy, it may take time to find the best fit. The mental health services system is strained, and access can be limited.
Doby suggests looking at a variety of options – if the services are for a student, reach out to the school counselors or social workers.
If an appointment isn’t available with a therapist, get on a waitlist. Get on several, with different providers. And check with them regularly.
Look into online counseling services, they may be a faster way to connect with a therapist.
How to find hope
So many people feel resignation, horror, sadness and depression during times like this.
And they give up, thinking there’s nothing anyone can do to stop these shootings.
Doby says it’s completely normal to feel that way. But, he counters, people have to find hope. And not just find it but spread it.
Bad things will still happen, warning signs will be missed. He insists, though, that those realities cannot stop people from trying to bring change, or from looking out for each other.
Stressing, in his words, “we are all in this together.”