Friday’s late night tragedy in a Colorado cinema was a rerun of a horror movie we’ve unfortunately seen played out all too many times before – a burst of gunfire, leaving innocent victims in its wake. In a matter of minutes, a brutal event reminds us how quickly a beautiful day can turn ugly. It’s never easy to face the deaths of young people, loved ones, community members – but it is made all the harder when it is the result of a senseless act of violence perpetrated by another human. It’s a betrayal of our common humanity, a violation of trust.
As disturbing and horrifying as these events are to adults, they may hold particular terror for children. Sometimes horrible acts of violence don’t really surface too prominently on a child’s radar – but because this shooting involved an event related to beloved pop-culture icon – ironically, a superhero who is supposed to defeat the forces of evil – it is more likely than not that these events will not escape their attention. Add to that the fact the events occurred in a venue that is familiar and seemingly safe to children and that children and young adults were among the casualties. The sudden and random nature of events could be terribly upsetting and threatening to a child’s sense of security. These events may trigger intense fears for their own safety or the safety of loved ones.
How we help children deal with difficult and traumatic events is an important topic, one that shapes and arms them for an emotionally healthy adulthood. We think it’s important enough that we offer these tips and resources for parents everywhere who may be struggling to explain things to children.
Helping kids deal with difficult events
- Limit your child’s exposure to the news. Make sure that news about violent events is not playing over and over in the background on radios or TV. Watch news with your kids and discuss events and their feelings about things.
- When frightening events occur, watch your own reaction when children are nearby. When adults react dramatically, emotionally or fearfully, it can be very unsettling for children, who take cues from adults. While you should be truthful in your feelings, be careful not to let your behavior shatter their sense of safety and security.
- Give comfort and reassurance. Allow children to express fear and sadness, don’t dismiss bad feelings. Encourage questions so you can understand their fears. They may be feeling vulnerable themselves, or they may fear losing parents or siblings that they depend on and love.
- Emphasize safety. Let children know that while sad and bad things do indeed happen, they are rare events. Most people are good. Reassure them that you will take care of them and keep them safe, and that police and teachers will help to look out for their safety, too. Use this as a time to reinforce safety rules.
- Channel things in a positive direction whenever possible. Point out good things, such as the heroism and bravery of police and doctors and the kindness of the people in the community. Use bad events as a springboard to reinforce gratitude and appreciation for life; the importance of kindness and empathy, the importance of helping others.
- Take positive action. We all feel helpless in the face of terrible events, children even more so. Encourage your child to take an action, such as making a donation, writing a letter, going to a church service, or leaving flowers or mementos at a memorial.
- Ensure that your communications are age appropriate. Young children don’t have a clear understanding of death, even if they say the words, so events may not affect them much; teens might suppress reaction entirely in a misguided attempt to appear cool or jaded. See links below for more on age-related reactions and communications.
- Keep an eye on things to ensure that they adjust. Watch for regression, clinging, hyperactivity in young children; at any age, kids who are anxious could exhibit sleep or eating disturbances. Teens or young adults may be obsessed with details of events, Watch how your kids play, how they talk about things to peers. If signs of disturbance persist, they may need the help of a professional so they don’t stay “stuck” in anxieties or fear.
Good resources for additional help:
Guide for Parents and Educators: Tips for Talking to Children and Youth After Traumatic Events (PDF)
Age-Related Reactions to a Traumatic Event (PDF)
Talking with Kids about Tough Issues
Explaining Death in a Child’s Terms
Anxiety, Fears, & Phobias
How to Help: Children’s Grief Responses
Batman, kids and Aurora: How to talk to children about the Colorado movie theater shooting
How to Talk to Your Kids About the Colorado Theater Shooting
ESI EAP offers trauma response, grief counseling, help for PTSD, and other services to help your employees and their family members cope with difficult life events. We also offer help and support for managers and HR professionals. Your EAP is only a phone call away. If you are employer that doesn’t have an EAP, call us at 800-535-4841.