Today, like so many across the country, I’m a mixed bag of emotions. I am heartbroken. I am angered. I’m also numb. Didn’t we see these same headlines just last year?
Deadliest Mass Shooting in U.S. History
Except for the unusually solemn interactions with my wife this morning as we contemplated the night’s events, we had a pretty normal morning getting our kids ready for school here in Nashville. After they arrived at school, my plan was to sit down and write the post you read now. Writing about ways we can get through tragedy together helps me process.
But before I could, I had one very important meeting at the preschool—Daddy Donut Day. On my way out, I got a text from a good friend and fellow Dad, “You at Donut Day? Let’s meet in the hall [afterwards].”
After hugging my friend, the shooting overnight quickly hit closer to home.
“Josh,” he said, “We played that festival over the weekend. I just got home early this morning.”
Not more than an hour later, after he and I processed together, I got an email from another friend.
“My very close friend and her family of 5 were there. [Three] boys under the ages of 10 and they were covered in other people’s blood spatter. Her hat was blown off by a bullet, but their lives were spared.”
I’m sure all of us will hear such stories in the coming days. With the increasing frequency and scale of these evil acts, eventually, we will all know somebody involved.
As a human being, these acts should disgust us. As a parent, they can bring a lot of fear. Our kids will eventually need to learn how to process the same emotions. Only in naïveté can we shelter our kids from ever experiencing a world free of such evil.
What that looks like differs depending on the age of our child or teenager. Here’s a brief overview of how we can talk to our kids about such evil.
Process Your Own Emotions
In times of crisis and trauma, our kid’s greatest need is to feel safe. As neuroscience researcher Daniel Siegel writes, “We need to be open to our child, feeling that safety in ourselves and creating the sense of ‘love without fear’ in our child.” In other words, don’t expect your kids to calm down while you frantically tell them everything will be okay.
The way to show our kids a sense of “love without fear” is “feeling that safety in ourselves.” Frankly put, our kids become who we are. They follow our lead.
A few ways we, as parents, can calm our own fears and feel safe again: Talk with trusted friends who have faced similar experiences; Avoid commentary and instead focus your conversation on how the event has impacted you; Reestablish and maintain your normal routines; Lean on and strengthen your support systems (i.e. family, friends, church community, etc.).
Filter Your Own Exposure to the Event
In regard to exposure, secondary trauma happens when we experience events secondhand, either repeatedly through a screen or from someone who was directly traumatized. Five factors influence our susceptibility to developing secondary trauma: Our proximity to the event, perception of the threat, our history (i.e. age and prior trauma), personality, and support system.
A few key thoughts about limiting exposure: Try to limit what you see in the news; don’t get caught up in the ratings driven “breaking news cycle;” and for the love of all that is good in the world, don’t write stupid stuff on Twitter. No matter the event, check your biases at the door, learn the facts, courageously help others where you can, and be the adult you want your children to grow up to be.
Talk to Your Kids Age-Appropriately
No matter the age of our children, listening to their emotions and concerns, and seeking to understand their inner world, before trying to get them to understand our outer world, is critical to brain development. First, listen. Second, understand. Third, think about the story you want to tell.
- Pre K- Age 6: Younger kids are unlikely to understand the complexities of what’s going on with mass shootings. Unless you, or a family you know, were directly impacted by the event, the American Academy of Pediatrics suggests not bringing it up at all with children under age 8. They are just too young to process it.
However, if your kids do learn about it or ask questions, especially those in the age 6-8 range, keep the story simple and factual. Don’t lecture. Keep your story to no more than 2-3 sentences and allow your last sentence to tell the heroes or good coming from the story.
For a litmus test: Think about your child laying in bed alone tonight. What story will he/she be repeating in his/her head based on what you say?
If they do begin to worry, there’s no better time than now to help them verbally label emotions like fear, anger, disappointment, and anxiety. Allow them to ask questions. This age is critical for neural integration—making sense of our feelings through language processing.
- Age 7-11: Just like from Pre-K to age 6, shield your child from graphic images and commentary. Keep the news cycle to a minimum and out of earshot of your kids. Safely allow them to talk about emotions, thoughts, or questions they have. Keep your normal routines as a family. If your kids do see images, try to show them pictures of the heroes as well. Remember, the opposite of fear is love (1 John 4:18).
- Age 11-14: Middle school children are likely more aware of the details related to last night’s events. Be assertive and ask them if they heard about it. If they have, listen to how they are processing it. If they haven’t, allow this to be an opportunity to talk to them about your family values. First, listen and understand. Then, talk to them about how your family, based on values, responds in such situations (i.e. prayer, sending letters, volunteering locally, etc.).
- Age 15-18:Chances are teenagers don’t just want to talk about what happened, they want to do something about it. I love this about today’s teenagers. Instead of getting into political debates about a given situation, listen to how your teenager is processing the shooting. Again, listen and understand. Then, guide the conversation on how they can take a more active role in being a leader in their community and a voice for love locally.
Model Compassion to Others
The Latin root of the word compassion means to “suffer with.” I could have easily slept last night. I chose instead to stay up praying for the families and children of those killed and injured. I’m penning this post to other parents because, if I don’t “suffer with” these families now, when will I?
If I want my children to value human life, they need to see me, their dad, practice what I preach.
Joshua Straub, Ph.D. is a trained trainer for the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation and author of Safe House: How Emotional Safety is the Key to Raising Kids Who Live, Love, and Lead Well. His most cherished roles are husband and dad.