In light of the recent school shooting in Florida, and the gun safety scares around the country, I thought it would be important to talk about how these events affect our children. Lately, the families that I work with have asked me whether they should prep their child for traumatic events like this or not. When this was initially brought up to me, I was unsure because I was barraged with thinking out the pros and cons. Adults, adolescents, and children all have to endure fire drills and natural disaster drills. Some adult clients have even told me about active shooter drills they have had at work where there are sound effects to replicate a gun being fired. My first reaction when a client told me of this was “Did they tell you that there were going to be sound effects beforehand?” This alarmed me, as situations like this can be traumatic, whether they are real threats or rehearsed ones. As our culture promotes, we feel most comfortable when we are prepared. The biggest drawback to rehearsing for disaster is that it can make us very anxious. Also, if we are put in simulated traumatic situations, it can be triggering for some people, whether or not they have had similar traumatic experiences in the past or not.
So back to my original questions: “Should parents be rehearsing these disasters with their children?” If you know your child has a propensity to be anxious, worried, or scared, then No, you should not be rehearsing these scenarios with your children. If children have seen or heard of gun-related disasters on the news or at school, the parents should definitely talk to their child about this. The parents should reflect and normalize if the child is scared or confused. The parents should also point out the silver linings, only after hearing them out and normalizing their feeling. The parents run the risk of minimizing how the child feels if they jump straight to talking about the positive side. Just like Mr. Rogers always said, “Look for the people who are helping.” Tell this to your children. Talk about the first responders, teachers, police, students, and community members who are helping make the situation safe. This reinforces for the child that despite something scary happening, there are always people who want to help. If the parents are unsure if the child has heard of any disasters, they can inquire by stating, “Is there anything you want to talk about or have questions about?” Always keep the door open by saying, “If you ever want to talk about anything, I am always here.” In the healthiest parent-child relationships, the parents will model being open about their feelings, and inquire about their child’s feelings often. This can be asking your child about something that made them proud, worried, confused etc. throughout the week. This makes it seem like usual business when the parent might inquire about something they may have heard that was “scary” or “worried” them.
Some rules of thumb to follow:
1.) Children under the age of 12 should not be watching the news or movies/TV shows that are not PG rated alone. Before the age of 12, the parts of the brain that processes abstract ideas and understands when things are real and fake have not been developed yet.
2.) Talk to your children about what they may have heard and correct any information that may be wrong IN A DEVELOPMENTALLY APPROPRIATE WAY. Parents should avoid using labels for people who may have committed these disasters and should not perpetuate the anxiety by giving information about guns, politics, world problems etc.
3.) If the child feels scared, express to them if it scares you as well. We want to normalize feelings, instead of pretending that “everything is fine”.
4.) Talk to your child about how the family unit can help those in need. I hear so many times from clients that they want to be able to control these situations. The reality is that we can’t. But we can control how we react, and the impact that we can have by spreading support. Maybe this means volunteering at MANNA Food (a local food drive who donates food to individuals in need), or visiting adults in nursing homes. Make the supporting effort something that is meaningful for your family.