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Talking to kids about the shootings in Colorado theater

Published: Friday, July 20 2012 4:49 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — If David Koldewyn's youngest daughter doesn't somehow hear about the shootings in the movie theater in Colorado, he doesn't plan to bring the topic up. She's 10 and a bit more anxious by nature than his other kids. His older girls, 13, and 15, have probably heard, alerted by friends on social media, so the topic's sure to come up.

He's ready, based on his children's ages and personalities. Koldewyn, a licensed clinical social worker who is a program manager for Valley Mental Health, knows that how parents address the issue with their kids will impact the youths’ sense of safety and security.

A gunman opened fire in that Colorado movie theater Friday, killing at least 12 and injuring 38 others. It's an event that children need their parents to help them put into context. But these important conversations must be age-appropriate, ongoing and thoughtful, experts say.

“When such an event happens in a place that had been viewed as safe, kids no longer see it as safe,” said Cathy Paine, chairperson for the National Emergency Assistance Team within the National Association of School Psychologists and herself a veteran of a traumatic shooting. In 1998 in her Springfield, Ore., community, a teenager killed his parents then went to Thurston High School and shot two dozen people, killing two of them. Paine was a school psychologist who helped the students and community cope with the aftermath.

As for the fear such an event sparks, "that's a natural reaction some kids are going to have. They are going to be fearful and nervous about a theater. If it was in a school building, they would be nervous about that," she said. “As parents, teachers, adults, we need to recognize that is going to happen. It is really hard to understand senseless violence, where there doesn’t seem to be any reason that rational people would understand. And you have to say that to children.”

As incidents accumulate, from September 11 terror attacks to shootings at Columbine and Virginia Tech, Trolley Square and elsewhere, “there is cumulative damage,” she said.

Realistic perspective

Context is everything. Koldewyn said when he talks to his oldest daughter, 15, "we'll talk about relative safety and risks in life. You can't prevent everything but we make efforts to try to be as safe as we can. And the likelihood is very low."

Because global communication is instantaneous, news spreads fast. That creates the impression, particularly perhaps among children, that life is very risky, he said. And parents, can become fearful, too, so that fewer kids walk to school or play outside with friends in case something bad could happen. That's not good for kids. "Then you have anxious kids who are afraid that at any moment something will happen and that's not the truth," said Koldewyn.

Dr. Michael Brody, media committee chairman for the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, agrees. Children should be told that “this is a random event. Put it in perspective,” he said. “It is similar to the kidnapping of children. It is very random, very rare.” Exaggerating the risk of such events can cause more problems for a child than the risk of an incident warrants.

He warns that neither adults nor kids should immerse themselves in stories about this or other shootings. “You can be traumatized from watching” such events, he said, or desensitized. And neither one is healthy.

“I think in some ways it’s like what went on in the 1960s, the first time we saw scenes of Vietnam and shootings, people setting themselves on fire. We are becoming desensitized — numb — is one of the aspects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Certain things we see can create symptoms such as nightmares, flashbacks, numbness, rage and anger.”

Flashbacks and other pain

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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