How To Talk To Children About The Tragic Colorado Shootings At The Batman Premiere

The news of the Colorado shooting is very shocking and difficult for parents themselves to digest. I actually attended the midnight premiere with my two teenaged nephews and arose the next morning to the news reports as my own toddlers were stirring in their rooms, so I can certainly relate to the concerns parents throughout our nation are facing.

Confronted with their own uncertainty, parents may tend to avoid these potentially challenging discussions with their children and are often quick to assume a problem-solver role for their children and family. While this can be an important job for everyday issues, a problem-solving approach may not be as useful for such unique events like the shooting at the Batman premiere. In cases such as these, children are often looking for a way to sort out their own feelings, a sounding board for working through their thoughts, and ultimately a source of reassurance and support.

Instead of having all the answers for their children, parents should instead consider the power of their roles as safe, supportive and active listeners. So instead of trying to figure out whether or not your child should be afraid to go to the movies, it is better to…

  • Validate your child’s concerns and acknowledge that such feelings are normal.
  • Tell your child that he/she can come to you and talk about his/her worries anytime.
  • Model coping by sharing your own reaction to the news and describing things you are doing to manage these feelings (e.g. talking with friends, exercising, getting good sleep, etc.).
  • Confidently convey that the recent event was rare and that movie theaters are safe and that extra precautions are now in place.
  • Give your child permission to stay home from the movies if they really don’t feel like going with their friends.
  • Offer to accompany them to the movie if they want to go, but need extra reassurance — for older kids, you might want to help them “save face” by letting them tell their friends that you insisted on chaperoning movie-going after the recent events.
  • Create some dedicated one-on-one time each day to spend with your child. During this time, don’t try to direct the conversation toward the topic of concern, but rather consider maintaining a calm, available presence for your child to share anything that is on his/her mind. Your child will benefit from this time with you even if nothing is said, just knowing that he/she is important to you and that you are physically and emotionally available to provide support.

When your child chooses to share his/her worries with you, some ways to make the most out of your active listening role are:

  • Paraphrase the content shared by your son/daughter to demonstrate that you are accurately hearing what is being said.
  • Summarize or group themes of the conversation/concerns that he/she has shared.
  • Reflect or identify the emotional content of your child’s comments (e.g. “It sounds like you are really worried about whether or not the movies are safe now”).
  • Acknowledge and praise your child for sharing his/her concerns with you and let him/her know how proud you are that he/she had the courage to talk about them.
  • Invite collaboration for problem-solving. Instead of offering your own solutions, ask your son or daughter what he/she thinks are the best ways to manage these thoughts and feelings.
  • Eliminate all distractions and other activities during one-on-one conversations (e.g. turn off the television in the background, disengage from other activities to focus on the conversation).
  • Model positive coping by using the “Feel, Felt, Found” technique. For example: It sounds like you feel really worried about going to the movies. I’ve felt kind of like that when I was afraid to get on an airplane for my business trip. I found that when I thought about how rare airplane crashes were and how much I was looking forward to visiting a new city, it helped me think about how excited I was about my trip instead of my worries.

Many parents have also questioned to what extent younger children be “protected” from news reports about this event, given the research suggesting that children who see or hear about these events on television may be traumatized by them. I would recommend that parents protect their younger children from watching the news in general, not just news pertaining to this event, as news programs are not designed for preschool audiences and typically report stories related to severe accidents, violent crimes and other local and national concerns. None of this content is appropriate or even intended for preschool viewers.

The key word here is to “protect” your child from the potential negative impact of these news stories, not “shelter.” Limiting television viewing to preschoolers, especially during likely airtimes of this story, is wise to protect your child from potential confusion, anxiety and fears.

If your child is exposed to this news, it is important to monitor your own reaction to your child’s questions. Instead of simply saying “we don’t talk about these kinds of things,” respond to your child’s questions in very simple, general and honest terms. Your child will be looking to see how you respond as much as for what you will say. If you show your child that you are calm and able to manage your worries, then that will demonstrate security and reassurance to them. Some things that you can tell your child are the following:

  • “Some people were hurt late at night at a movie theater.”
  • “This has only happened one time.”
  • “Police caught the man that hurt those people.”
  • “This happened far away from here.”
  • “You are safe here and Mommy and Daddy will always make sure you are safe.”

Know that it is OK to say “I don’t really know” if you child asks you something for which you don’t know the answer. You can always return the question to your son/daughter, saying, “what do you think?”

While “breaking news” is typically aired during primetime television and often before preschoolers’ bedtimes, it is likely that they may be exposed to news of this event. While this information may prompt worries and/or fears, it is extremely unlikely that children will become “traumatized” by this information. Research indicates that these types of news events have negative effects on children’s adjustment and coping, which is not quite the same as traumatizing them. Exposure to the information is not likely to be traumatizing, but repeated exposure can increase the potential for negative reaction. Young children may not understand that each airing of the story is a repetition and thus believe that the event is happening multiple times. Believing the shooting is something that happens very frequently may increase the level of anxiety and fear the child experiences. Parents who are concerned that their child has been traumatized can observe if their child has any changes in their daily functioning including changes in sleep, appetite, energy, social interests, behavior or motivation to engage in activities normally thought of as fun. These are possible signs that your child is having trouble coping with a stressor. Knowing what is normal for your child is the key to understanding his or her reactions to these reports. So sudden fears of the dark, new nightmares or a new pattern of disruptive behaviors might be a sign of a potential concerns if these issues were not present prior being exposed to the news of the tragedy.

Parents can consult their child’s pediatrician if needed and request a referral to a psychologist, or licensed counselor or social worker if additional support is needed. To find out the best practices for therapy, parents can review the resources provided at effectivechildtherapy.com.

About Dr. David Curtis, Psychologist

I am a psychologist at Baylor College of Medicine/Texas Children's Hospital. My academic interests include innovative treatments for children with behavior disorders, school and community-based interventions, and behavioral health service delivery in pediatric primary care.

My specialties are Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, and Family-Based Interventions.

Posted in Community, Parenting, Psychology

7 Responses to How To Talk To Children About The Tragic Colorado Shootings At The Batman Premiere

  1. Pingback: Tips to Talk to Children About the Colorado Shooting | Care2 Healthy Living

  2. Ginger Robles,RN says:

    Thanks so much. My granddaughter that is 5 had eye surgery at Texas Childrens last month. WE live 8 hours south of Houston. You advice is very helpful to deal & explain such a horrible tragedy.

    Ginger Robles

  3. Pingback: Tips to Talk to Children About the Colorado Shooting | Health

  4. Kris Kelly says:

    Thank you, Dr. Curtis, for taking the time to share such timely, well-thought professional advice. After such a horrible tragedy, we all experience varying levels of uncertainty, and knowing how to explain this to a child leaves most of us speechless. Thank you also for recommending from an expert’s viewpoint that parents should not allow their children to view televised news as its content is neither appropriate nor intended for young children. I look forward to your future posts.

    Kris Kelly
    Texas Children’s Hospital

  5. Deborah says:

    Thank you for this advice. I was wondering how to talk to my middle school children about this subject.

  6. Pingback: Newtown, Old Story: Resources for Discussing School Violence | Mary Tyler Mom

  7. Pingback: Resources to help you discuss school violence with your children | ChicagoNow

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