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Helping Children Deal with and Understand Mass Shootings

Given How Easily Information is Shared, It’s Vital Parents Help Children Understand Such Tragedies

GUEST EDITORIAL – OP/ED

 

Eugene Cash

Ralph E. (Gene) Cash, Ph.D., ABPP

FORT LAUDERDALE-DAVIE, Fla. They have become all too common on the nightly news – incidents of mass shootings. And in today’s world of instant information, word of these tragedies reach our children like never before. That’s why it’s important that parents know how to address such incidents with their children.

Children differ in age, size, races and developmental level, and the world is experienced by each uniquely and must be explained to them individually. However, there are a few ways in which children are all alike. They all have hopes, dreams and fears. All young children look to the important adult(s) in their lives to help them understand and cope with life’s stressors. Perhaps most importantly, even children too young to understand language take cues from those important adults about how to react to their environments.

Both the American Psychiatric Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend avoiding the topic of societal tragedies with children until they are around the age of eight (or the equivalent developmental level). However, in this era of mass media and information overload, it is unrealistic to think that such information can be kept from even very young children. Often the information obtained from others is incorrect, sensationalized, and/or inconsistent with your family’s values. Consequently, parents and other caregivers should be prepared to know what to say and, even more importantly, how to react when these almost inevitable exposures occur.

Tragedies, particularly those caused by other people, have a way of producing visceral reactions and resulting strong feelings. We can’t and shouldn’t hide these feelings from children, but the way in which we express them is of utmost importance. Here are some general principles that work for all ages:

  • Don’t pretend you’re not upset when you are. Children and adolescents almost always know if you are distressed or angry about something.
  • Don’t overreact. Yelling, screaming, breaking things, lashing out, crying uncontrollably, cursing, etc. set a bad example.
  • Talk about your feelings honestly but as calmly as possible in language the child or adolescent can understand. If the child is pre-verbal, simply hold him or her in a comforting way to convey that things will be alright.
  • Reassure the child or adolescent that it is very unlikely that such a tragedy could affect them or those about whom they care.
  • Explain what precautions can be taken to reduce the probability that such an event could happen to them (e.g., “Be sure to do what your teacher/principal asks you to do in case of an emergency at school”).
  • Provide your child with a developmentally appropriate narrative that helps to explain what happened in a way that is not likely to alarm him or her.

 

Here are some sample narratives/suggestions based upon developmental ages:

Under age six – “Sometimes people try to hurt others, but most people would never do that.”

Elementary school children – Try not to let them see graphic pictures or images of the tragedy. Instead show pictures of and talk about those who were brave and helped. Answer their questions as matter-of-factly as possible.

Preadolescents – Ask if they have heard about the event and how they feel about it. If they haven’t heard about it, tell them what you know calmly, but omit grisly details. Share your feelings and beliefs about the event(s) in a way that emphasizes and promotes pro-social values.

Teens – Allow them to share their feelings, validate their feelings, and emphasize problem-solving. Talk about positive things they can do to help make the neighborhood/school/world a safer, better place.

 

Children are our future. How we, as caregivers, communicate with them will shape that future.

 

Ralph E. Cash, Ph.D., ABPP
Professor and Licensed Psychologist
College of Psychology, Nova Southeastern University

 

Nova Southeastern University fully supports an individual’s right to express their viewpoint and opinions. The views expressed in this guest editorial are that of Ralph E. Cash, Ph.D., a professor in Nova Southeastern University’s College of Psychology and are not necessarily those of NSU, its President or Board of Trustees.

 

About the Author:

Ralph E. (Gene) Cash, Ph.D., ABPP, is a licensed and board certified (ABPP and NCSP) psychologist, professor of psychology at Nova Southeastern University’s (NSU) College of Psychology, director of NSU’s School-related Psychological Assessment and Clinical Interventions clinic, former president of the Florida Association of School Psychologists (FASP), and former president of  the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP). Dr. Cash is one of the few recipients of FASP’s Lifetime Achievement Award for his service to the profession. He has authored numerous peer-reviewed articles, papers, and book chapters. His current research interests include suicide prevention, training of psychology students using simulated patients, fostering critical thinking in elementary school students, determining competencies necessary for doctoral level school psychologists, and assessing effects of public policy advocacy training on advocacy behaviors.

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About Nova Southeastern University (NSU): Located in beautiful Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Nova Southeastern University (NSU) is a dynamic research institution dedicated to providing high-quality educational programs at the undergraduate, graduate, and first-professional degree levels. A private, not-for-profit institution with more than 24,000 students, NSU has campuses in Fort Lauderdale, Fort Myers, Jacksonville, Miami, Miramar, Orlando, Palm Beach, and Tampa, Florida, as well as San Juan, Puerto Rico, while maintaining a presence online globally. For more than 50 years, NSU has been awarding degrees in a wide range of fields, while fostering groundbreaking research and an impactful commitment to community. Classified as a research university with “high research activity” by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, NSU is 1 of only 37 universities nationwide to also be awarded Carnegie’s Community Engagement Classification, and is also the  largest private, not-for-profit institution in the United States that meets the U.S. Department of Education’s criteria as a Hispanic-serving Institution. Please visit www.nova.edu for more information.