Buffalo. Santa Ana. Uvalde. Could it happen in Long Beach or in San Pedro? The reality of domestic terrorism and mass shootings breaks all of our hearts and scares our children again and again. It seems so untenable that we live our lives like this. At The Guidance Center, we provide mental health care to more 3,000 children and families annually. While authorities do their work to ensure the safety of our communities, and politicians debate the issues, we as citizens we must have critical conversations with our children.
We asked Patricia Costales, LCSW, CEO of The Guidance Center and Crisis Intervention Specialist, to share her thoughts and expertise on how to speak to your children after a crisis. There are three steps: Share your feelings, state the facts and create a plan.
Start by stating your feelings. Acknowledge your feelings in a calm way. “I found it hard to concentrate. I was distracted at work when I heard about the shooting. I feel unsettled and sad today,” said Patricia.
She says how we react during a perceived or real crisis can either empower or inhibit our children. By sharing your feelings, you encourage youth to do the same.
You can start by asking questions. What did you hear today at school? What was one of the scariest parts? Ask them what it was like being at school, what was the mood. What were the rumors and how did they make them feel?
Costales says, “If the adolescent is communicative, asking open-ended questions will foster conversation. Keep in mind older kids will ask why this keeps happening, and it’s okay to say we don’t understand or know. If you have a younger or non-verbal child ask them to draw you a picture to explain their feelings.”
After the feelings are shared, state facts in an age appropriate manner. This is an opportunity to reassure them, combat rumors and provide comfort. We can be sure that our children hear about these tragedies at school, from their friends. Hearing facts calmly from a trusted adult is a vital balance to that.
Lastly, create a plan but empower kids by allowing them to participate with you in this action step. It is important to talk about coping. You can foster this by asking questions and developing ideas together.
Who else can you talk to about your feelings? Whose house could you get to if you couldn’t get home? Who could you trust if something were to happen? What resources are at school? Have you had drills or practices, do you know what to do if there is danger?
Wrap up the conversation with young people by identifying strengths and resources in the community. We can guarantee social media, peers and other influences shape will shape our children’s perceptions. Even with limited knowledge about threats, keeping children talking and appropriately informed empowers them to feel more in control and less fearful.
Speaking to your child about violence or school shootings might feel overwhelming at first, but it is an important part of keeping your kids and teens safe and well acclimated. Explain that all feelings are valid when a tragedy occurs and emphasize that schools are generally very safe despite how it may feel. If your child’s feelings of fear and anxiety persist, please do not hesitate to reach out to a healthcare provider or mental health professional for help.