Matthew Oransky, PhD
A mass shooting like the one that occurred in Orlando, Florida is devastating both for those in the community and for people all over the U.S. Unfortunately, with the shooting in San Bernardino, California in December, the murders at Planned Parenthood, the ISIS attacks in Paris, and the 133 mass shootings that have occurred in 2016 so far, these tragic events are an all-too-common part of our lives.
While these acts of terror and tragedy can be overwhelming even for adults, they can hit our children particularly hard, because their brains are still developing. It might be necessary to take a pause and address these horrific events. At the Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center, we work with traumatized kids every day. Let us help you have these conversations with your kids, so they can learn how to cope and build resilience.
Keep these six tips in mind, and adjust based on your child’s needs, feelings, and maturity:
Stay calm: The number-one predictor of a child’s response to trauma is the response of his or her caregivers. If you act highly upset, your child may have more difficulty relaxing. If you’re calm, children tend to have a better response.
Be honest: Acknowledge the event. You can explain it in a way your child will understand based on their age and maturity, but never lie. Young people know when something is wrong, and if you don’t have a truthful conversation about what’s happened, your child might imagine a far worse story.
Answer questions: Make yourself available for your children to ask questions about the traumatic event. Answer factually, in a calm and straightforward manner. If you don’t know the answer to a question, you can say so.
Acknowledge fears: If your child feels upset or scared, let them know that’s normal. The world, after all, can be a scary place, and you wouldn’t want your child to grow up thinking it’s not ok to sometimes feel afraid.
Avoid repeated exposure: It’s normal for your child to be curious about a traumatic event, but seeing the details over and over again can cause a negative reaction. Try to keep your child from looking up story after story about the tragedy online. Graphic images in particular can be upsetting.
Return to normal routines: Unless there’s an immediate threat to your child’s safety, try to return to normal routines (school, meals, activities, etc.) as quickly as possible. If the traumatic event has made this impossible, try to establish a new routine, as best you can. Rhythm and routines help your children feel safe.
We all want to help our kids feel safe in a scary world. We hope this advice helps you have these conversations with your kids — because as tragic as these conversations are, they are also, unfortunately, necessary.
The Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center is located in New York City. It provides comprehensive, confidential, judgment free health care at no charge to over 10,000 young people every year. Dr. Oransky provides individual, family, andmental health services for adolescents at the Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center. He specializes in trauma, PTSD, and mental health care for LGBT youth.
This column is not intended to provide medical advice, professional diagnosis, opinion, treatment or services to you or to any other individual, only general information for education purposes only. If your child is unusually upset for more than six weeks, please see a mental health professional.