Talking about shootings with children: An age-by-age guide

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Sooner or later, they will start asking about such matters, and when it does finally happen, how should a parent respond?

Shooting incidents are terrifying, indeed. But what’s more terrifying is the increasing frequency with which they are happening. With the extensive media coverage they are receiving, it’s becoming hard to shield children from being aware of such tragedies.

Sooner or later, they will start to asking about it, and when it does occur, how does a parent respond?

According to a Today Parents article, how parents should approach such tragedies will depend on their child’s age and temperament.

For children younger than nine-years-old, The American Psychiatric Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that such discussions are avoided.

“If it doesn't directly affect your family, kids under 8 do not need to hear about this,” says parenting expert Dr. Deborah Gilboa, because before this age, children struggle to process it.

But parents carry the responsibility of bringing it up if their children are at risk of hearing it from others.

Dr. Deborah then offers these suggestions for talking about tragedies with children of all ages.

Preschool-kindergarten: One-sentence story

Talking about shootings with children: An age-by-age guide

She suggests figuring out first how you want to tell the story, then explaining it in one sentence. The key is to tell the story in simple terms, reinforcing all the while the parents’ beliefs system. This will also give you a chance to change the topic, focusing on the positives of the tragedy such as the heroes that emerged instead of the villain.

Elementary school children: Shield them

Talking about shootings with children: An age-by-age guide

Children at this stage will ask many interrogative questions, and parents should determine how much they want to share. Dr. Deborah also recommends shielding them from seeing graphic photos and news reports; these will stick to them longer than words.

But if on the occasion that they do get exposed to such images, parents should counter it by showing positive images to their children.

"Let's see if we can replace those memories and balance it out by showing the positives and the amazing people who rushed to help," she says.

Tweens: Listen to their feelings

Talking about shootings with children: An age-by-age guide

"If you are going to talk [about] a fraught or laden topic…you start with a pretest. You are going to ask how they feel about it," she says.

Then listen to what they are feeling. This will give you an opportunity to share your beliefs to them while getting a deeper understanding of how their child’s mind works.

"[This becomes] a great conversation of their values and your values that do not focus on the particular gore [but] more on the person you are raising," she says.

Teens: Look for solutions

Talking about shootings with children: An age-by-age guide

"Teenagers are looking for hypocrisy and solutions and this generation believes in collaboration and social justice. And they are going to ask 'What are you doing,'" she says. "You can answer and then ask 'what are you doing? What would you like to do? What can we do together?"

At this stage, parents should listen to their teen’s feelings and be sure to display empathy. Teaching teens how to make a change will also make them resilient.

"I think for anyone action makes us feel effective," Gilboa says. "What we want our kids to do when [they] see something wrong is to try to fix it."

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