Talking to kids about the shootings in Colorado theater

Published: Friday, July 20 2012 4:00 p.m. MDT

That's one thing Paine said people need to watch for after a horrific news event. Sometimes, an event triggers emotions based on a previous experience a person had. Children relate to an event based on something in their own past, like abuse.

There are appropriate, age-sensitive ways to address with children what happened in Colorado.

Multiple experts emphasized the importance of helping children of all ages feel safe, creating a context they can understand developmentally that includes what’s being done to protect them and conveying that violence is not an answer.

“You want to reinforce the idea that this was a bad event and this is not a solution to any problem,” Paine said.

Younger children can’t handle too much detail. And older children in a media-saturated world can’t be sheltered very successfully from disturbing events, even across the globe. These days, they pass news back and forth themselves on tweets and Facebook, through phone texts and in other ways.

At all ages, it’s important to understand what children are making of the things they see. One of the lessons mental health experts learned after the September 11 terrorist attacks was that the endless playing on TV of the planes crashing into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon was viewed by many of the youngest children as something that actually kept happening again and again, Paine said.

Setting limits, talking

Parents should spend time with their children and listen to them. “Encourage them to talk about this. Regardless of age, it is important to have a chance to talk about feelings," she said.

The shooting for kids 7 and under “is going to be very scary,” said Brody. “This is the type of thing really young children shouldn’t be seeing.”

Experts all suggest limiting how long children watch TV coverage of an event.

This particular shooting will hit some children hard because some of the victims were reportedly young, said Brody, who was also an adviser to the Clinton administration on the Columbine shooting.

The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry offers tip sheets on talking to kids about disasters, violence, war and terrorism. Among the advice:

— Use age-appropriate words that are easy to understand

— Be honest but don’t overload a child with too much information

— Be consistent and reassuring, but don’t make unrealistic promises

— Avoid stereotyping people by race, nationality or religion

— Watch for signs of mental or physical distress

— Limit TV coverage for children

At Thurston High, said Paine, she saw played out all the concerns that such traumas prompt and she saw the need for support, even of kids who were not there.

“This will be similar. And there are a lot of people who knew people in the theater. A really wide net of people will be impacted by this,” she said.

EMAIL: lois@desnews.com, Twitter: Loisco

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