How to talk to kids after an unspeakable trauma
Following the mass shooting in May at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, which took the lives of 19 children and two teachers, many parents around the country were left wondering how to help their own children process such a tragedy. But before talking to children about this, or any other significant tragedy or traumatic event, parents need to take a moment to reflect on the event and what it means for them and their family, says Melissa Brymer, PhD, director of terrorism and disaster programs at the UCLA-Duke National Center for Child Traumatic Stress.
“For some, they may have experienced other violence or a recent death due to COVID, so they need a moment to figure out how this is triggering them,” Dr. Brymer says.
“It’s important to take that moment to process — talk it out with a partner, a loved one or a friend, even to figure out what words to use before talking to our kids.”
Once the timing is right, it’s important for parents to initiate those conversations. Children may hear about the event on the news, they might see things online, or they might overhear adults in conversation about the incident. Dr. Brymer says it’s important for parents to find out what their children have heard, what they know, and to correct any misinformation.
For younger children, who may worry about their own safety and that of their family, she says, the talks will be shorter. “We need to reassure them that they are safe,” Dr. Brymer says. “Sometimes, we have to have that conversation multiple times. They can only handle small chunks at a time.”
It’s important for parents to find out what their children have heard, what they know, and to correct any misinformation.
When it comes to speaking with adolescents, the conversation can lean more toward talking about safety concerns that may be associated with social and political issues, if any, related to the event. “It might tap into family values,” Dr. Brymer says. “What does this mean for our family? Were there certain identities affected by this event?”
When speaking with teenagers, it’s important to ask about what they may have seen on social media, Dr. Brymer says. Have they seen videos or other disturbing content? “Acknowledge that feeling a little vulnerable is expected,” she says. Following a school-related event, such as the mass shooting in May, “You may want to review what your kids’ school does to address safety. What have they been doing?’”
Dr. Brymer says some older children may want to talk about change and how they can contribute. “Are there organization they might want to volunteer with? School clubs or initiatives? As a family, talking about things that we can do for change may be helpful.”
If a child asks if violence such as occurred in Texas will happen again, it’s important to answer honestly, Dr. Brymer says. “We can’t tell them no; that wouldn’t be truthful. We then have to tap into what we can do to be part of the change. Are there things at their school — is there bullying or a lack of security — and is there something we can do to address those issues? Focus on those things that we can control.”
For instance, family members could commit to reaching out to others who might be having a hard time, due to the pandemic or other issues. “It helps them, and it also helps us,” she says.