Three mass killings just days apart have left California communities shaken, once again prompting conversations about how to talk with kids about tragedies.
A 72-year-old gunman killed 11 people and injured nine others at a ballroom dance studio in Monterey Park, and another gunman killed seven people in Half Moon Bay and injured another. At one of the sites of the Half Moon Bay shooting, children who lived on the property and also attended school nearby may have seen the attack take place. A week earlier, two gunmen killed six people, including a teenage mother and her baby, at a property in Goshen.
Such acts of violence are disturbing for children to witness, but kid also are exposed to scary-sounding news and alarming imagery when similar traumatic events occur around the country.
Schools in the United States have become more prepared for mass shootings in recent years, which has meant learning how to talk with kids about active shooters and “bad guys” on school campuses. While the incidence of on-campus shootings is extremely low, they’re something many teachers and parents have prepared for.
“The most helpful thing for parents to share with their kids is that these events are rare and that adults are there to protect them,” said Stephen Brock, professor of psychology at CSU Sacramento. “We can’t deny the reality of these things, but kids need to be reassured with these facts.”
Some kids find out about the news by seeing it themselves or hearing it discussed at school, at home or in their communities. Young children can especially be harmed by this exposure, so experts recommend restricting their access to traumatic news. Kids old enough to have smartphones will likely get misinformation on the internet and social media, so it’s even more important for parents and caregivers to support their kids.
Here are some key steps parents and caregivers can take:
Remind kids that they are safe
Children need to be reassured by their caregivers that they are safe. The American Psychological Association says, above all, reassure:
“ ... reassure your children that you will do everything you know how to do to keep them safe and to watch out for them. Reassure them that you will be available to answer any questions or talk about this topic again in the future. Reassure them that they are loved.”
Limit young children's exposure to traumatic news
Young children have less developed skills to separate facts from fears, so psychologists recommend minimizing a child’s exposure to traumatic news.
“When kids see the news, even if they are not a resident of [the affected place], they have the mistaken perception that they could be shot at any time,” said Brock. “For little ones, turn [the news] off.”
And sometimes, that fear is transferred to children through adult behavior. If adults are behaving in an anxious or fearful manner, kids will pick up on that, especially those in primary grades and younger.
“Kids will look to adults to see how scared they should be,” said Brock.