By Tracey Dowdy
My daughters were in first and third grade when 9/11 happened. We were living on Long Island, and I was the assistant to the elementary school principal. Of course, this was pre-internet, so we spent the day listening to the radio reports as we tried to understand the scope of what was happening.
One of the biggest challenges, aside from knowing if we could put children on the bus at the end of the day in case parents were still trapped in the city and unable to get home, was determining what to tell the students about what had happened.
That’s a question we’ve had to answer again and again in this country in the aftermath of Sandy Hook, the DC Sniper, Virginia Tech, and the recent shootings in El Paso and Dayton. Sadly, according to data from nonprofit Gun Violence Archive (GVA), as of Aug. 5, 2019, the 217th day of the year, there have been 255 mass shootings in the U.S. (defined as more than four people shot, excluding the shooter). As I write this, the USA Today building in McLean, Virginia, 15 minutes from my house, is being evacuated because of a possible gunman in the building.
So with violence a seemingly ever-present threat, how do we talk to our children about what has, or could, happen? It’s difficult for us as adults to make sense or process what’s happening, so how can we talk to our kids? Should we? Psychotherapist and Pastor of Family Ministries at Expectation Church Roy Dowdy says that though it’s a tough conversation to have, it’s an important one. “Your kids are going to hear about scary or tragic things one way or another – on the playground, on the bus, the soccer field, or from an older sibling. A lot of parents try to shield their kids from these things but that isn’t healthy. Telling them that nothing bad can ever happen doesn’t prepare them for the real world – bad things happen to good people every day. Instead, a healthy approach is to tell them you will do your best to protect them, they’re stronger than they know, and together you will get through any hard times that come. This provides them with the coping tools they’ll need to succeed in life.”
Dowdy recommends using these strategies when tragedy strikes and you’re forced to have that difficult conversation.
The first and most important thing to remember is to be age-appropriate in your explanations. You’ll need to have separate conversations with your kindergartener and your high school senior for reasons that are obvious. If you have preschoolers, it’s important to distinguish between what’s real and what’s make-believe. They have complex, often vivid imaginations, and sometimes have difficulty separating fact from fiction. Be honest, but be discreet.
Allow your child to ask questions so you get an understanding of what they’re thinking and about what they’ve heard. Children are no different from adults when it comes to repeating a story. Facts are embellished, important information is left out, and the story they’ve heard may be far from the actual event. Remember, your tweens and teens are likely getting a lot of their information from the internet – YouTube, Twitter, Reddit – not always the most reliable sources of information. Ask open questions like What have you heard?,” “Where did you hear that?,” and “What do you think about what you’ve heard?”
Be careful that in your conversation you aren’t vilifying a particular group of people. Often, the motivation behind the violence is unclear, so don’t jump to conclusions or paint everyone from that ethnicity, political party, religion, or other demographic with the same brush. Also, be mindful not to project your fears on to your child. If possible, process the event with someone in your support system before talking to them.
With older children who are active online, remind them of one of the first things I learned in journalism school – “If it bleeds, it leads.” Media outlets are competitive and the more sensational the headline, the more clicks (readers) it draws, and not every media outlet holds the same level of journalistic integrity. Teach them to think critically about whether the source is credible and likely to exaggerate.
Help them put things in perspective based on your own experience with tragedy on a personal or even national level as we all experienced on 9/11. Help them understand that history has many accounts of violence, but it also has stories of people who overcame adversity and the countless number of people who step up and become heroes during these events.
Dowdy also recommends helping your child find a healthy coping strategy. Younger children can draw pictures of how they’re feeling or write a thank you note to the police or first responders. Older kids may benefit from writing in a journal or creating a video diary.
Finally, if your child seems overwhelmed by the event and they’re having difficulty coping, it may be time to have them talk to someone beside you. Psychology Today has a directory that can connect you with a therapist or support group in your area, or, one of these resources may be a better fit:
- Crisis Call Center: 800-273-8255 or text ANSWER to 839863
- Crisis Text Line (U.S. only): Text HELLO to 741741
- Youthspace Text Line (across Canada): Text 778-783-0177 from 6 p.m. to midnight daily.
Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Washington DC. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances, edits and researches on subjects ranging from family and education to history and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.