How do you talk to your young child about tragedies, like the school shooting in Florida?
This isn't a fun topic. More and more, however, we find ourselves having to explain horrible happenings to our children. What's the right amount of information? How do we explain without traumatizing?
This latest school shooting in Florida brought it all home again, with fearful images played and replayed on television. For very young children - preschool age - experts advise that you limit the amount of exposure via TV. "Preschoolers may not understand instant replays," says Dr. Robin Gurwitch, a psychologist and professor at Duke University Medical Center. “So, for example, that loop of children running out of the school, if they don't know that that's a replay, they think that school has thousands and thousands of students.” Gurwitch says that can also include footage replayed from a week ago. Young children may think the shooting is still happening, or has happened again.
Your primary school student - kindergarten through second grade - may have heard about the shooting at school, or on the bus. The best suggestion is to acknowledge that something did happen. Perhaps start the conversation by saying, "Something really sad happened at a school today. Some students and some teachers were hurt, and some were killed. It's a very sad thing, but if you want to ask me questions or if you hear something you don't understand, we can talk about it." Then, leave it alone unless your child does indeed have questions. Those questions may come much later, and they may ask the same question over and over as their brains process what they've learned.
The most important thing is to let your child know that he or she is safe, and that the adults in his or her life - at home and at school - will do everything they can to keep him or her safe. If a child who was previously excited to get ready for school, suddenly shows a reluctance to go, or if he or she expresses fear, start asking questions: what makes you afraid? What makes you feel unsafe? Assure your child that the adults at their school are specially trained to deal with dangerous situations, and that there is a plan in place at their school should something bad happen.
Be patient and willing to talk...but don't invite fear, either. If your child accepts your initial conversation and has no further questions, leave it at that. Just know that you've begun laying the groundwork for open communication, regardless of topic, in the future.