Mass shootings are happening more and more in America. According to The Washington Post, there have been over 220 so far this year. The Post reports that this reflects a trend that we’ve seen in the past few years: in 2021, almost 700 such incidents occurred, a jump from the 611 in 2020 and 417 in 2019. Before that, incidents had not topped 400 annually since the Gun Violence Archive started tracking in 2014.
Among the horrifying aspects of these acts of unspeakable violence is: how do you discuss these incidents with your children? We asked that question to Keith Klosterman, Ph. D., a mental health counselor and marriage and family therapist. He tells us, “I’ve seen an uptick in terms of kids feeling scared to go to school. I think there’s been an uptick in terms of anxiety.”
It’s an understandable thing for children to worry about, especially in recent weeks. But how do you approach the conversation with your kids? “I would say parents should be honest about their own feelings,” he says. “I think often times parents think that they can’t share their feelings with their kids. But in fact, kids are often looking to the parent for an emotional response. So, the parent modeling how to express the way they feel can also help the child feel validated, heard, supported and even safe.”
With that in mind, he suggests, that “The parent can say something to the effect of, ‘Something terrible happened today and this is how I feel about it. How are you feeling?’ I like being able to have an honest and open conversation. Depending on the age of the child, you want to make sure it’s developmentally appropriate.”
It’s also important to not just talk, but to listen. “I’d also say that parents should listen first. I think htat listening to thoughts and feelings allows the parents to gain, to a certain extent, an understanding of how the child’s responding. What’s going on with the kid? I’d also advise parents to not interrupt. I think sometimes there’s a tendency for parents to jump in, or ‘rescue.’ Allow the kids to express themselves and their ideas before responding, I think that, you know, you cannot parents can also show they’re listening to their body language and make sure they focus on the kid. And — I know this sounds crazy — but there should be no distractions. No using the cell phone, turn off the TV. Make the conversation a priority. These conversations are really hard and we look for distractions, or ways to water them down.”
“I think getting into an honest conversation with the kids about where they’re at and how you can support them is really, really important. There are a couple of other things I would suggest. One is to validate how they’re feeling. You can do that by just paraphrasing or repeating what they just said. What parents don’t want to do is tell the child that their feelings are wrong or inaccurate. That’s a mistake that a lot of parents will make. It’s not done intentionally. But sometimes I think they’ll minimize things by saying, ‘You shouldn’t feel that way.’ It’s really, really important to make sure that if you want your child to open up, parents need to recognize the way you respond, because that’s going to impact how much they share.”
“One of the last things I guess I’d say is parents can provide reassurance in the adults in their children’s life who are meant to be trustworthy, and tell them that teachers, faculty members and community members are doing everything they can to make sure that they are safe and protected.”