Most Americans woke up Monday morning to discover the horrific news of the Las Vegas shooting. As the day wore on, more and more details became known—the name of the shooter, the identities of a handful of victims, the seemingly unending trove of raw video taken by concertgoers.
Add to that internet conspiracies and purposefully misleading information online, and by the end of the day, the news was overwhelming.
It is an understatement to say that adults have a difficult time processing mass shootings.
Children are no different—they will struggle to understand what happened and why it happened. They can feel sad. They can feel scared. They can become angry. And they will look to adults for answers.
With that in mind, it is important for parents to think about how to talk about this issue with their children. Here are a few tips to keep in mind:
1. Different kids will need different information. You know your child best. He may be very sensitive. She may be prone to anxiety. Think about how your child will react to this information before talking to him/her about it. It is also important to take into account your children’s ages. Generally speaking, older children will have more sophisticated questions and will want more detailed information.
2. Children may react in surprising ways. Most kids will be upset by the news, but they will be resilient in the face of such a horrible tragedy. Other children may have a hard time with it. If you are seeing more stress, anger, or fear in your child in coming days, it might be a reaction to the shooting. Children may also revert to earlier stages of development temporarily (it would not be unusual to see bedwetting in an elementary school child or playing with toys in a high schooler). All of these reactions are normal and mostly temporary. If they last longer than a week, it might be a sign that professional help is needed.
3. Your kids will want to know why this happened. This is an impossible question to answer, and it is okay to tell your kids that you don’t know why it happened. You can explain that some people do terrible things for reasons we don’t completely understand. It’s not a satisfying answer, but your kids will appreciate your honesty.
4. Your kids will hear about this at school. Whether you want them to or not, your school-aged children will hear about what happened from their friends and teachers. Sometimes they will get accurate information, and other times they will not, just like adults. So, know that your children will find out and make a conscious decision about whether to talk to them proactively or wait until they come to you.
5. Your kids have access to the internet. If you are not careful, your children will be able to see hours and hours of raw video showing the panic, fear, and carnage from the Las Vegas concert. Trust me that news agencies are holding back on which videos they show on the air. There are videos showing people getting shot and dying. Make sure your children don’t access these videos—this will take extra vigilance on your part over the next few days.
6. Listen. Sometimes, your children just need to talk to you and air their fears. Listening to what they have to say sends a powerful message. You don’t need to fix the problem for them to know you are there to support them emotionally.
7. Think of ways to empower your children. One of the best ways to help any person lessen his/her stress or anger is to feel empowered. Although limited, you can work with your kids to take charge of their emotions by writing letters to elected officials, the Red Cross, or victims and their families. You can take them with you as you donate blood. You can all volunteer over the weekend at your favorite charity. This is an excellent chance for you to show your children they do have the power to effect at least a little bit of change.
Incidents like the Las Vegas shooting are always hard for both adults and children to discuss and understand. Talking with your children about how we sometimes don’t have the answers can make a difficult situation a little less confusing.
Dr. Max Wachtel is the 9News Psychologist and a forensic psychologist and behavioral profiler. He is the author of “Sociopaths and Psychopaths: A Crisis of Conscience and Empathy.”