By Robin Gurwitch, PhD
Once again our nation is coping with a violent tragedy. In the aftermath of the Orlando terrorist attack, we find ourselves distressed, grief-stricken, and even angry that such a horrible thing could happen. Children and teens may find the event even more challenging. Here are some suggestions on talking with your children about what happened.
Engage in age-appropriate honest discussions
Children and teens may have watched news coverage of the event and its aftermath and/or heard adults around them talking about the shooting. To best help youth, let them know that talking about it is a good thing. You can help by starting the conversation with your children. It may start with, “As you know, there was a terrible shooting at a nightclub in Orlando, FL. Many people were killed or injured. I want to talk to you about this and answer any questions or worries you may have.” Be honest in your discussion, but the gruesome details are unnecessary to share.
Keep the conversation at a level that the child or teen can understand. In other words, what you may say to an 8 year old may be very different than the language you may use with a 16 year old. Remember, your frank discussion, while difficult, will help separate fact from fiction and clear up any misinformation or misunderstanding. Children will “fill in the gaps” with ideas that may be far more frightening than the reality. Because of this, try to be mindful of your adult conversations about the attack as, again, children may not fully understand what they hear.
Monitor social media and television exposure
Young children should not watch this at all. Older children and teens may have some exposure, but it is important that we discuss what they are seeing or hearing with them. With teens, we can often ask, “what have your friends been posting or saying about the attack in Orlando?” This may open the door for further conversation. Remember, as adults, we also need to take a break from coverage. We are also vulnerable to stress reactions, including worries and anxieties.
Promote human values
Because this attack happened at a gay nightclub, there may be questions about the attack’s location. It is important to let children and teens know that no one deserves any act of violence for their sexual orientation, gender identity or, for that matter, race, religion, culture, or other beliefs. We live in a time when fear-mongering and hate speech directed at anyone who is different are heightened in our country. It is important to share with children and teens the values and beliefs we want them to develop as we help to shape their world view. For parents and other important adults in the lives of LGBTQ youth, it is essential that we provide extra support and understanding as this tragedy unfolds. Unfortunately, hate speech may occur and we need to remind our children and teens in the LGBTQ community that they are not alone.
General resources for LGBT youth and their parents include resources from the Family Acceptance Project, which works to prevent health and mental health risks for LGBT children and youth, and “What Does Gay Mean?” – a brochure to improve understanding and respect for LGBT youth, available from Mental Health America for a minimal cost. The Public Interest blog will explore needs of LGBTQ youth in a future post. We also must not overlook the fact that Muslim youth may be the targets of Islamophobic attacks in the aftermath of this terrorist attack. They will also need compassion and support in the days and weeks ahead. Encourage children in both of these groups to seek out a trusted adult to share their questions, concerns, and worries as they may experience the event in a more personal way than others.
Recognize safety and security
Concerns related to safety and security are often paramount after tragedies. Talk to children and teens about the heroic response from law enforcement and ongoing steps being taken. Share with youth that communities across the U.S. have plans to help keep residents as safe as possible before, during, and after any disaster or terrorist attack. This is an opportunity to discuss family plans for safety. For all children and youth, providing an extra dose of patience, attention, and love will help everyone during this time.
Anticipate possible stress reactions
In the aftermath of tragic events, particularly terrorist events, you may see reactions to stress and trauma in your children. These may include difficulty sleeping and changes in appetite. Encouraging proper nutrition, exercise, and sleep is helpful. There may also be problems with attention and concentration. For many children and especially teens, there may be an increase in irritability and mood swings (above what we would expect). Children and youth may think about this event, even when they don’t want to. Keep the lines of communication open and check back in with them often in the days and weeks ahead.
Accept possible reminders of suffering or loss
Traumas such as this recent shooting may bring up personal suffering or losses, whether or not the loss was the result of violence. Help children and teens remember how they have successfully coped with past hardships and encourage them to use similar strategies now. Grief and loss are unique for each of us and children and teens are no different. These emotions follow no timetable. Building and maintaining a strong social support system is paramount to the healing process. Besides family and friends, support systems may also include faith and culture-based organizations.
The aftermath of the Orlando terrorist attack also reminds us of the goodness in people. As we watched thousands respond to the call for blood donations, we witnessed the desire to help, the wish to say, “we stand together; we are united; we will persevere.” Children and teens may wish to find a way to help. Consider making a donation to the American Red Cross or similar organizations from monies they have earned. A handwritten note to responders in Orlando, as well as in your own community for the work they do every day, can be another positive contribution.
Consider age-appropriate ways for your children to volunteer in your community, your neighborhood, and in your cultural or faith-based organizations to help others. These and myriad other acts of kindness remind us that while these acts of terrorism seek to threaten and cower us, the effect may be the opposite. These acts bring out our strengths and assure us that we will support each other today and into the future.
Distressing reactions to this tragedy will likely lessen over time. If they persist or interfere with day-to-day functioning, a psychologist can help you develop a strategy to move forward. Go to APA’s Psychologist Locator or reach out to your state psychological association for resources in your area.
For further tips on talking to your kids during tragedy, check out these resources:
And for your own self-care in these difficult times, check out:
Dr. Robin Gurwitch has been involved in understanding the impact of terrorism and disasters on children since the 1995 bombing in Oklahoma City, providing direct service, training, and conducting research. She is a member of the APA Disaster Resource Network, American Red Cross, and the National Child Traumatic Stress Network. Dr. Gurwitch was recently appointed to the HHS National Advisory Committee on Children and Disasters.
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