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How to talk to children after a tragedy

This past week has been heartbreaking for our community. A man shot and killed 12 innocent victims at a bar in Thousand Oaks on Wednesday night. I read that this was the 307th mass shooting on the 311th day of 2018. That’s almost one every single day. Absolutely horrific.  

Hours later, a fire started in the hills in Ventura County, behind the community where my parents live. I was at work and started getting texts and automated phone calls from Ventura County Emergency alerts, saying my neighborhood was under a mandatory evacuation order and the threat was imminent. I didn’t even realize a fire had started and thought it was somehow connected to the shooting. I called my parents - they weren’t getting the alerts.  They saw the smoke clouds and the flames. My daughter was with them since they pick her up from school and watch her until I get home. My son was still at preschool. They looked outside and saw the fires and told me they were leaving and would call me back.

I left work and was in a panic driving to pick up my son. Our plan was to leave Camarillo and drive to my brothers house in Newbury Park.  Minutes later, my mom called to tell me the fire had spread to Newbury Park and the freeways were closed. Our new plan was to drive to my father in law’s house in Moorpark. After checking the emergency update website, we realized that my neighborhood was no longer under mandatory evacuation. The fire was moving in the other direction. So we decided to meet at my house and stay there until we got more information  It took my parents 2 hours to get from their house to mine. Normally, it takes about 7 minutes. This had me thinking, what if the fire was spreading toward us? How would we get out of here?

We were lucky.  The panic of not knowing exactly what was going on and what we were going to do shook me, but we did not lose our belongings or lives.  That was not the reality for others just south of us, or for every single resident of Paradise CA, who lost many members of their community and their entire town to a fire hours later.  The fires are still not contained and the damage is still being done. It is devastating.

In response to these events, I have been in conversation with other parents about how to talk to kids about tragedies.

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The National Association of school psychologists recommends the following:

  1. Reassure children that they are safe.  They will hear and see information and may not know how to process or understand what will happen to them.  Help them put things into perspective. Let them know safe places, safe people, and what you will do in an emergency.

  2. Make time to talk.  Talk about their feelings and validate them.  Let them express themselves and their opinions.  Give them time to sit quietly, to cry, to yell. ALL feelings are okay.  Anger, sadness, fear, whatever emotion they feel, let them know it is normal and okay.  If they don’t want to talk, spend time with them and be present.

  3. Keep explanations developmentally appropriate.  Tell your children the basic facts. They do not need to know every single detail.

    1. Early elementary age: “brief, simple information that should be balanced with reassurances that their school and homes ar safe and that adults are there to protect them.”

    2. Upper elementary to middle school: “children will be more vocal in asking questions about whether they are truly safe….They may need assistance separating reality from fantasy.  Discuss efforts of school and community leaders to provide safe schools.”

    3. Upper middle to high school: “Emphasize the role that students have in maintaining safe schools by following school safety guidelines, communicating any safety concerns to administrators, and accessing support for emotional needs.”

I chose not to tell my kids about the shooting at Borderline.  We did talk with our 5 year old daughter about the fires since she was with my parents when they were evacuating and you could see the flames from our home.  She knows there was a big wildfire that started in the hills behind the place where her grandparents live that spread to other communities. She knows that some people lost their homes.  She knows that the firefighters, first responders, and many other people in the community are helping the people who were affected. She does not know that people were killed. She does not know the extent of the devastation.  There is not a clear black and white rule about what to say and what not to say. My advice is this: stick with the basic facts about what happened. Follow your child’s maturity, ability to cope, and the questions they are asking to guide you when deciding what you feel comfortable with sharing.

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4. Review safety procedures.  These are good times to review what to do if there is an emergency at home or school.  What to do, where to meet, who to call.

5. Observe emotional state (and behavior).  Some children may say they are fine, but deep down they are not.  Notice any chances in behavior, moodiness, sleeping and eating patterns, and let them know you are there for them.  Seek professional help if you notice significant changes or concerns.

6. Limit media viewing.  Children and adolescents will receive no benefit from watching the devastation on the television and internet.  “Adults need to be mindful of the content of conversations that they have with each other in front of children.”

7. Maintain your normal routine.  As much as possible, as soon as possible, stick to it.  This helps provide a sense of normalcy and safety.  This goes for sleep, eating, movement, and school/work.  Returning to the normal routine can help provide reassurance that things will be okay.

Source: National Association of School Psychologists, “Talking to Children About Violence: Tips for Parents and Teachers

As a mom and human being, here is what I believe: you are allowed to feel mad and sad and confused and scared in the face of tragedy.  There will be people who have different views and opinions than you about the issues and how they should be addressed. You are allowed to share your thoughts, opinions, offer support to others and ask for change. Don’t let someone make you think that you should not stand up for what you believe because they are offended, when were never speaking about them to begin with.  Don’t believe when they say that anger equals hate; this could not be further from the truth.

“Be soft.  Do not let the world make you hard.  Do not let pain make you hate. Do not let the bitterness steal your sweetness.  Take pride that even though the rest of the world may disagree, you still believe it to be a beautiful place.”  Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

Gina Meadowstragedy, children