How to talk to your kids after the Dayton, El Paso/Walmart shootings

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Talking about acts of violence like mass shootings with your children is not easy. If you have to have that difficult talk, remember the four S’s.
USA TODAY

More than two dozen people are dead, one as young as 2, in two separate shootings within 24 hours.

Parents will be asked to explain the unfathomable to their children. In Dayton, Ohio, nine people, including the sister of the shooting suspect, died Sunday in an entertainment district. The suspect was fatally shot by police. In El Paso, Texas, a gunman is in police custody after his possible hate crime rampage left 20 dead at a busy Walmart.

What do you say? How do you begin?

The conversations aren’t easy, even though parents likely have been having them more frequently, with 251 mass shootings in 2019.

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Your primary job as a parent, experts say, even amid all the photos and video of pain and suffering, is to point out the power of humanity. 

“We can’t become numb to this or any other tragedy,” Richard Weissbourd, a child and family psychologist with Harvard’s School of Education and author of “The Parents We Mean to Be” told USA TODAY. 

Teens can be especially vulnerable to this, given a run-on buffet of exposure to news images and photos through social media.

Remember the 4 S’s

No script exists for how to talk to children. But Dr. Robbie Adler-Tapia, an Arizona-based licensed psychologist, offered USA TODAY these four easy-to-remember tips for discussing tragedy with kids.

Solace

Provide comfort and consolation for any emotions and fears to help kids feel secure.

Pro tips include:

  • Let the child lead the discussion. Ask children what they have heard about the incident and how they feel about it. 
  • Clarify any misconceptions. This is particularly important for young children. For example: If kids see a  video clip being replayed on the news, they may not realize it is the same footage. They might think it is happening in real time, over and over again.
  • Don’t dismiss how a child feels. For example, if children say they’re anxious, don’t tell them they have nothing to be anxious about. “You don’t want to deny or stamp out how a child is feeling,” Weissbourd said. If they’re anxious, ask why, he said. “It could be because they’re afraid it could happen at their school. Or at your workplace. Or it could be about guns. It’s important to do some exploring first.”

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Security

Take steps to help children feel safe and protected. As soon as possible, get them to a safe location where they feel protected by people they can depend on.

Pro tips include:

  • Reassure your child that he or she is safe. Calm your child by reminding them that authorities are doing everything they can to keep people safe. 
  • Maintain your regular routine. A typical day-to-day schedule allows us to feel safe, Abi Gewirtz, Lindahl Leadership professor at the University of Minnesota’s Department of Family Social Science, told USA TODAY.

Service

Provide the essential services to meet basic needs.

Pro tips include:

  • Watch younger kids and their news diet. Emotional maturity varies among children but many experts recommend shielding younger children from graphic visuals. University of Minnesota Regents professor Ann Masten told USA TODAY: If your child has learned about the shooting watching TV, for example, or from friends, but has a secure home environment with a strong support system, he or she likely will be fine and unaffected in the long run.
  • For teens, the challenge is to stave off desensitization. Stephanie O’Leary, clinical psychologist and author of “Parenting in the Real World,” suggests keeping teenagers from becoming jaded by turning despair into something to do. “Instead of focusing on the suffering, have a call to action,” O’Leary said. “Think about what you can do today, tomorrow and in your life,” whether that’s making a donation, saying a prayer or sending a powerful meditation.

Support

If the children are victims, give them a post-incident safety period to rest and heal.  

Pro tips include:

  • Many children will respond in the short term with anxiety and fear. But if there is prolonged, abnormal behavior after a tragedy, children should be seen by a pediatrician or a therapist, Masten said. 
  • While offering children support, no matter their age, never make anything up. “Don’t lie and say something didn’t happen, or it did happen but no one died. Don’t become a discredited expert,” O’Leary said. “Your kids will eventually find out. If you don’t have the answers, it’s OK to say you don’t.”

Contributing: Taylor Seely, Arizona Republic.

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The two massacres in Texas and Ohio became the nation’s latest mass shootings as defined by the Gun Violence Archive.
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