Yet another tragic and senseless school shooting has occurred, leaving many grief-stricken and in shock. If you are a parent, you likely started thinking about how your children may have been impacted by the news.
As a disaster psychologist, I've conducted several studies on the impact of mass shootings across the United States. I've done research on this topic around the globe, including a study on civil conflicts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Liberia that resulted in thousands upon thousands of deaths. When a gunman opened fire, killing several people at a factory in Aurora, Illinois—about 30 minutes from my home—I was asked to provide trauma care at a church in that community while they held a prayer vigil for those impacted.
Still, despite my vocational calling to help others amidst mass traumas and disasters, as a father of three I often feel lost for words or "know-how" when faced with the need to talk to my own children about mass shootings. I want to protect my children from the harsh realities I see in my work. Yet because of what I do professionally, I know how important it is to address this issue personally.
You may feel tempted to avoid talking to your children about school shootings. But between the news, social media, other kids, and active shooter drills, your children are probably more aware of what's going on than you realize. You do more to love them by being thoughtful about how you approach such conversations than by avoiding them.
Take steps to make sure your needs are being met by other adults—don't put that burden on your children. Keep in mind that children often follow their parents' lead when it comes to responding to a crisis. Children are like sponges and absorb their parents' reactions, words, and energy. Delivering difficult news is never easy. If you're feeling anxious, that's natural. Part of the reason is that you're having your own feelings about what you or your family may be facing. And you may be worried about saying or doing the wrong thing—remind yourself that it's okay to struggle and even to make mistakes. But also remember that you are there for your children, not the other way around. Before you share with your kids, give yourself the time you need to notice and process those feelings, so that you can be fully present to your children's needs and feelings.
Strike the right tone with your children. You may be tempted to paint an unrealistically positive picture of a difficult situation for the sake of your children—and maybe for yourself. Children will be best-served, though, if you are as honest as possible. You need not offer all the worst-case scenarios, but do be realistic. Distorting the reality of what you don't want to face will not serve anyone.
Sometimes children may feel responsible for events that are entirely beyond their control. When it's not clear that there is a plan in place to face the crisis, children may, in some way, feel they must bear the weight of that responsibility. Relieve them of that potential burden by letting them know it is not their fault. When you reassure children that the adults are managing the situation, you give them permission to be children.
Use Age-Appropriate Language
Recognize your child's developmental ability to understand the situation. When your children ask questions, answer them to the best of your ability, using words and concepts that are appropriate for their developmental stages. Likewise, be sure to create space for questions your children might have. It's normal to be scared of inviting questions, as you likely have more questions than answers yourself. That's okay, but be honest if you don't know what to say by letting them know that you don't know. And when possible, assure them that that you'll look into it and get back to them. (But if you make this promise, make sure you follow through.) Be authentic with your children, but remember to talk to your children as children, not as adults.
Try to Maintain Routines
Crises disrupt daily life. Taking small steps to help our students regain some sort of normalcy will help them cope more effectively. This does not mean ignoring what has occurred, but rather trying to maintain some structure in our interactions. Familiar faces, schedules, and places can go a long way in helping our students. There is something soothing and healing in routine.
Helping our children hold onto faith will help cultivate peace, meaning, and purpose during this difficult time. Let them know it's common to struggle with questions of faith during trying times. Remind them that God is with us even in times of trouble. Some ways to help them draw upon their faith might include encouraging your children to read scripture, stay involved in church life, and discuss spiritual topics with others.
Pray Together—Then Take Action
By praying together, you are modeling for your children what it looks like to put your faith in God and to trust Him above all else. Praying together helps you and your children access a wellspring of hope. Offering up our prayers helps remind children of God's love and of the truth that we are not alone in our suffering. Then model what it means to love your neighbor by taking action, doing what you can to help prevent such horrific acts from occurring in the first place. One way to do this is to join me and with like-minded people through causes such as Prayers & Action — and by signing the Prayers & Action petition—which unites people from all walks of life to end senseless acts of gun violence in America.
Dr. Jamie Aten is the founder and executive director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute and Blanchard Chair of Humanitarian & Disaster Leadership at Wheaton College (Wheaton, IL). His newest book is A Walking Disaster: What Katrina and Cancer Taught Me About Faith and Resilience. He is also a spokesperson for Prayers & Action, which is committed to ending senseless acts of gun violence and to helping survivors. In 2016 he received the FEMA Community Preparedness Champion award at the White House. Follow on Twitter at @drjamieaten or visit his website jamieaten.com.