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When a mass shooting or other violent event hits the national news, it can be a struggle to explain what happened to your preschooler or school-age child. These tips and answers to common questions will make it easier. Most important, reassure your child that she's safe.
Find out what your young child already knows
How much your preschooler or school-age child understands about a violent event like a mass shooting depends partly on how much exposure she has to media coverage. Children have difficulty distinguishing between fantasy and reality, and some believe that an event is reoccurring each time they see a replay.
Seeing the news can scare and confuse young children because they need to see the world as a safe and predictable place – particularly in places where they spend time regularly, such as their daycare, preschool, or elementary school.
Your child's age will also influence how aware she is. A preschooler may remain unexposed to frightening news or not tune in enough to be scared. A school-age child, who may have more media exposure and hear more talk on the playground, is more likely to understand that something serious has occurred.
If your child is happily oblivious and showing no signs of anxiety, there's no need to tell her about a violent event. If she is aware, gently probe her understanding of it so that you can clear up any misconceptions. For example, she might not grasp the fact that a school shooting happened far away.
If you're concerned about changes in your child in response to a violent event, see "Signs that your child might not be coping well" below.
How will my reaction to a violent event affect my child?
Kids of all ages – including babies, toddlers, and preschoolers – pick up on the emotional tone at home and mirror it. So even if your child doesn't grasp exactly what happened, he will be affected by your reaction.
If you're calm, your child may quickly forget about the event. But if you're upset, your child will likely also feel upset – even if he doesn't know why. If adults in his life are acting differently, it's important to be prepared to reassure him and provide some age-appropriate context.
If your child asks, for example, "Why are you crying?" answer honestly: "I'm sad because some people were badly hurt."
Tips for talking to your child about violent events in the media
It's common for young children to assume that an event somewhere else could strike them next. Emphasize that events like these are extremely rare and that there are many more good people in the world than bad.
Reassure your child that she and her family are safe. The most important thing is to remind your child that lots of people – you, teachers, police officers, fire fighters – are working to keep her safe. Be specific about exactly what's being done to keep her safe in places she frequently goes. Point out that strangers aren't allowed into her school or daycare, and at home you lock the doors and windows at night.
Also reassure her that others she cares about are safe. If she asks, "Is Grandma okay?" you can say, "Yes, she's fine. She's far away from where those bad things happened. Would you like to call and talk to her?"
Keep it simple and to the point. You can share basic facts, including what happened and where, but keep it brief and avoid graphic details. Use words your child will understand – say "sad" as opposed to "tragic" – but avoid being too vague. You might say, "A bad person entered a store with a gun and hurt some customers. The police arrived and helped keep many people safe."
If your child wants to know why it happened, you might say, "I don't know why this happened. Maybe the person who did this was extremely angry, and he took that out on other people."
Be honest, but adapt your answer to your child's age. It can be tempting to allay your child's fears with lies, but tell the truth in an age-appropriate way.
For example, if your preschooler asks if the same violent event could happen where you live, you could say, "I don't think it will happen here" and reiterate that many people are helping keep her safe every day.
With a grade-school student, you might want to be honest that it could happen in your community, but emphasize how unlikely it is and help put it in perspective: "These kinds of things don't happen very often – that's why they make the news when they do." Again, mention safety measures, such as locked doors or security cameras in school.
Validate your child's feelings. Ask if your child has questions. This shows her that you respect what she's thinking and feeling. Keep your answers honest but brief.
Preschoolers may communicate their fears through play, drawing, or acting out (increased tantrums, defiance, or clinginess). School-age children typically use a combination of talking and play.
Let your child know that it's natural to feel different emotions, such as fear. Encourage her to tell you how she feels. You can model this by telling her that you feel sad about what happened. Art or role-play can be a good way for kids to express emotions that are hard for them to put into words.
Watch for new fears. Your child's need for reassurance may extend beyond news of the event. New nighttime fears, such as monsters or darkness, may crop up, or your child may become afraid of strangers or other unknowns. Reassure your child: "There are no monsters under your bed. Let's go look together." Your child just wants to know she'll be safe in her own bed tonight.
If your child is asking questions about death, you can use it as a springboard to talk about it, but her underlying concern is really, "Am I safe?" Again, reassure her that she's in no danger and that you and the rest of the family are safe too.
What else can I do to help my child?
Offer comfort. Hug your child, play his favorite game, or curl up with a feel-good book.
Stick to routines. After a scary event, you may be tempted to overprotect your child. But a sense of normalcy will help your child feel more secure. Take your child to school or daycare, if that's your routine, and continue to go to places like the park, sports practices, and classes.
Watch for changes. See "Signs that your child might not be coping well" below.
Should I shield my young child from the news?
Yes. Young children have trouble distinguishing between fantasy and reality. Some children think that an event is happening again each time they see it. The best strategy is to prevent your young child from being exposed to violent content – the news, TV shows, or movies – as much as possible.
Don't view or listen to the news, or discuss a violent event with other adults, when your preschooler or school-age child is within hearing distance. Keep newspapers or magazines with graphic images out of reach, and don't watch the news on any device when your child is nearby.
If your child is already aware of the incident, it might be helpful to preview coverage geared toward younger people together and then watch it together. That way, you can prepare to answer her questions and help her process the information. PBS Kids is a good sources for kid-friendly information.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends keeping all screens off around children younger than 18 months, very limited screen time for older toddlers, and no more than an hour of screen time per day for children 2 and older.
Signs that your child might not be coping well
The AAP advises parents to look for the following nonverbal signs that their child may not be coping well after news of a tragic event:
- Sleep problems: Your child may be afraid to go to sleep, have bad dreams, or struggle to wake up.
- Physical complaints: Your child may complain of headaches, stomach aches, or tiredness. His appetite might increase or decrease.
- Changes in behavior: Your child may regress and act more immature, for example, whining or falling back in potty training, or become demanding and clingy.
- Emotional problems: Your child may feel depressed, anxious, afraid, or unduly sad. Other signs might be irritability, social withdrawal, or obsessive play, such as acting out a traumatic event over and over.
If your child is having trouble coping, talk to his teachers and school counselor, if one is available. If, despite your efforts to calm his fears, you remain concerned, or your child continues to show any of the above signs for several days, talk with his doctor or a mental health professional.
Resources for parents
- Resources for talking to children about violence from the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry
- Tips on teaching kids news and media literacy from Common Sense Media
- Tips for talking to children after a traumatic event from the federal government