How to talk to kids about gun violenceMay 25, 2022
Sadness prevails when we watch the news about the recent massacre in Uvalde, Texas, where 19 children and 2 teachers were victim of gun violence at their elementary school. We are devastated thinking about the terror these children endured, the loss, the thought of parents who will not be able to hold their children, and the trauma to their peers and school community. Our solidarity is with the families and the community that suffered human loss. Our greatest wish is that these acts of violence are eradicated from our society.
Parents and teachers can protect children’s mental health at home and at school during violent events. It is no longer possible to shield children completely from the news, as they will be exposed to what is going on in our society at some point. Many of them may be at risk of negative effects due to the traumatic nature of the events. We must take the necessary steps to help them cope with this shocking news and to build resilience in children.
The following guidelines, adapted from recommendations by the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP), are important in protecting children's mental health:
- Reinforce safety: Validate any emotions children express and help them talk about events without minimizing their concerns. Offer them different perspectives that activate their hope. Be realistic and objective and reassure them that parents and teachers are taking all necessary precautions to keep schools safe.
- Provide empathy and time: Listen to children and make them feel that you understand their emotions. Guide the conversation based on what they ask. Help them express themselves in a developmentally appropriate way (e.g., younger children can draw or do concrete activities and older children can write).
- Give explanations according to their stage of development: Younger children will need to feel safe with concrete explanations about the safety measures around them. Middle schoolers may need to separate fact from fantasy to avoid fears. Teenagers may need more information about their safety and security, but they will also need to express their own opinions about violence in schools and other tragedies in society. Talk to them about their responsibility to follow school safety rules and report any suspicions to school authorities. Offer access to professional emotional support if needed.
- Identify safety procedures: Parents and teachers should review safety measures and procedures to follow at school and at home. Help children and teens identify an adult they can trust if needed.
- Observe your child’s emotional state: Many children do not express their feelings verbally and adults should observe behavioral changes, such as crying for no apparent reason, lack of appetite, fear, irritability or aggressiveness, stomach pains or other ailments, startle reactions, difficulty sleeping or nightmares, isolation or withdrawal, risky behaviors, regressive behavior (e.g., thumb sucking, wetting, baby talk), and other reactions that are not typical of their daily behavior. Children who have had a previous traumatic experience, have endured loss, suffer from depression or other mental illness, or have special needs may be at risk for the most severe reactions. Seek help from a mental health professional if you notice intense reactions that last for several weeks.
- Avoid excessive news: Persistent exposure to the news can cause children and adolescents to experience stress, anxiety, and fears. The age, maturity and developmental level of children and adolescents is important in determining the type of news they can watch. Be with them and offer time to process the news with them, providing the necessary explanations according to their developmental level. Ask children if they have any concerns and be prepared to answer their questions. Talk about the news in a calm way so that they understand the world around them and to reduce the negative effect of traumatic events on their mental health, thus building resilience in children and adolescents.
- Follow a typical routine: Validating children's concerns and emotions is important, but so is maintaining a daily routine in which they feel safe. Let them do their homework and participate in extracurricular activities without putting pressure on them, especially if they feel overwhelmed. Encourage a healthy diet, physical exercise, sports, and activities that promote mental health.
It is important for adults to emphasize a few points when talking to children. NASP recommends telling children the following:
- All parents, educators, and emergency responders are working to keep you safe in schools. You can identify specific information about security and safety measures in their building.
- We all have a responsibility to communicate anything we observe that causes concern or fear. Describe the difference between reporting, accusing, and gossiping. Explain that they can prevent a tragedy directly or anonymously by reporting a suspicion to an adult they trust.
- Honestly explain that you can't guarantee that nothing bad will happen but highlight the difference between the possibility that something will happen and the probability that it will affect them at school.
- Explain that sometimes people do bad things that affect other people for different reasons. They may be unable to manage their anger, may be under the influence of alcohol or drugs, or may have mental health problems. Express that adults are working to prevent these events, that it is important to seek help if they feel angry, and to stay away from alcohol and drugs.
- Ask them to stay away from guns and other weapons and to tell an adult they trust if they know of anyone with a weapon. Explain that access to guns is one of the main risk factors for deadly violence.
- Reinforce that violence is never the solution to personal problems. Students can participate in anti-violence programs at school, learn conflict resolution skills, and seek adult help if they or a peer are struggling with anger, depression, or other emotions they cannot control.
Psychological trauma does not present physical injuries, but it can affect the mind and body in different ways over time. In many cases, children can have prolonged reactions. Sometimes they exhibit behaviors immediately after the event, while others show reactions months or even years later. Many can recover quickly, and others reach adulthood with adverse effects. It is important that parents, teachers, and all adults take the necessary steps to minimize the impact of trauma and ensure that children grow up happy and healthy.
For more information, consult the National Association of School Psychologists. At our practice, Dr. Monica Oganes and our team of school psychologists can help you. Contact us in Miami (305) 800-9399 and Orlando (407) 809-5680.