Practice Tip of the Week: Speaking to Children About Shootings
Tuesday, November 12, 2019
Posted by: Kanaka Sathasivan
By Betty Richardson, PhD, APRN, PMHCNS-BC, LPC, LMFT
Children understandably feel unsafe when their school experiences a mass shooting. Mothers today also report their children not feeling safe at school even without a mass shooting. Children may overhear adults or news stories discussing scary events. These scary events and even just the thought there could be a shooting and the drills can be upsetting to children.
Be aware that the way you interact with a child can influence their level of comfort or trauma. You may have expectations for what you want the child to take away from the talk but don't be discouraged if they don't acknowledge in a first conversation what you are wanting to convey. Just being a caring presence is therapeutic.
It’s important to use age-appropriate language with a child or adolescent. Use words that the child or adolescent can understand. Remember that young children cannot abstract. Abstraction begins at age 11 or later. Prior to this age, children can take you literally. One example is of the helping person talking about a children’s hospital with the name “Cook” in it. The child wanted to know if cooking children happened in that place. Watch the child’s face and body language to identify whether the child is becoming more relaxed or uncomfortable with what you are saying.
A young child who doesn’t feel safe might do things like sitting under a table or hiding in a closet or corner. In cases like this it is helpful to get under the table, in the closet or in the corner with the child if you can. You can share you feel safer and ask if they feel safer in these places. It is not helpful to demand they come out from under the table, the closet or the corner.
Sometimes children who have been traumatized refuse to speak. In these cases, it is helpful to have a hand puppet or stuffed animal that you can talk to. Soon you will find the child opening up by talking to the puppet or stuffed animal and then to you. Keep an open posture (no crossed arms), stay on the same level as the child (not standing above them), and use a soft voice. If the child does not know you, sometimes it is helpful to have two visits with that child. On the second visit the child is often more willing to talk.
With older children who have ideas about solutions, it is helpful to convey that you are taking their ideas seriously. Sometimes it’s helpful to ask the older child if you can write their ideas down in order to convey that you are taking them seriously. Of course, with all ages, show that you think their feelings are valid and that you care about them and what they have experienced and are still experiencing.
The Mental Health Taskforce developed this resource to provide guidelines for interacting with children of different ages. If you have any questions or suggestions for additions to the guide, please send them to email@example.com.