WASHINGTON – As adults try to process the June 12 massacre at a nightclub in Orlando, Florida, they should be aware that children, even if not overly exposed to the news, might have a lot of questions or fears about what happened.
The best way to help them is to talk about it, according to experts.
The amount of discussion also depends on the age group, meaning children under 6 really do not need too many details and should not be exposed to too much news about it. Children ages 7-13 can handle the basic news but need not know all graphic details. Adults should discuss what happened with them as they should with teenagers to find out what they are thinking and give them reassurances or safety tips.
“Assure them tragedies are rare, but don’t say it will never happen to you; we can’t make that promise today,” said Joseph White, a child psychologist and catechetical author based in Austin, Texas, who presented a June 16 webinar for Our Sunday Visitor called: “When Disaster Strikes: Helping Children Cope With Tragedies, Disasters and Acts of Terror.”
White began working with children who had gone through traumatic events when he was an undergraduate student at the University of Oklahoma.
He was meeting with an adviser April 19, 1995, when he saw a huge cloud outside the window from the Oklahoma City bombing.
The bombing shook the entire community, he said, and many people in the area had nightmares for days and felt on edge wanting to know why it happened. Children were no exception; they were shaken up and scared.
In a question-and-answer session during the webinar, one person wrote in that it is almost impossible to keep children from the news, even if it isn’t on at home because kids at school are talking about what’s happening.
In this case, White said parents should talk with kids about what they’ve heard so they can correct misconceptions or clarify anything. He also advised teaching children to set limits and tell their friends they don’t want to talk about the events.
Older children and teens especially should know how to be safe, he said, to be sure to look around and be aware of their surroundings and know the safety exits.
In a blog post, “Talking to Kids about Terrorism,” author Thomas Gagliano, who has written books on parenting, stressed that while children need to be cautious and aware of surroundings, they shouldn’t stop living and doing what they want to do.
“Assure your child that you and the other authorities in his life – teachers, principals, police – are all aware of the situation and doing their best to protect them,” he wrote.
Gagliano also urges parents to take note of what they don’t say to their kids, too. “The worst thing to do is to confuse the child by saying one thing and doing another. To say that you are not afraid but then change your patterns and not got to the movies” or large venues sends a conflicting and confusing message, he said.
White added in his webinar that there has been a rise in childhood anxiety disorders since 2001 –which might be exhibited in extreme separation fears, frequent nightmares, headaches or restlessness which may signal a need for counseling.
He said parents and educators should encourage young people to be “signs of God’s mercy with those who are suffering.”
When they ask what can they do, tell them to be peacemakers at school or home, he said. Also teach them to accept differences and find common ground with others.
Another point for parents to consider is that their children might not have the same reaction as them to a tragic event like the attack on the Orlando gay nightclub, which left 50 people dead (including the shooter) and more than 50 others wounded. That’s because kids have other things on their minds.
They also don’t have the same perspective about discrimination or terrorism, which makes them view what happened through a different lens, said Bob Lichtenstein, director of the school psychology program at William James College in Newton, Massachusetts.
“They may not be ready or receptive at the particular time for the parent’s efforts to make this a teachable moment,” he wrote in an online forum for psychology graduates.
But his response is to “teach them anyway. Parents’ words and deeds have far more impact than children may register in the moment.”
Follow Zimmermann on Twitter @carolmaczim