COLUMBIA – Virginia Tech. Sandy Hook. Orlando. Las Vegas.
Four of the deadliest mass shootings in recent U.S. history. For many adults, the violence is too much to even think about, let alone understand.
So how should adults talk about these tragedies with children?
“Sometimes adults avoid conversations with children assuming that they’re going to make things more painful for them, and it’s actually just the opposite,” said Dr. Tashel Bordere, assistant professor of Human Development and Family Science at the University of Missouri.
The conversation was a must for parent and Moms Demand Action volunteer Catey Terry and her children. Terry said the shooting in Newtown, Connecticut was a major influence in talking to her children about gun violence. It also inspired her role in the movement for gun safety.
“I think what happened for a lot of us was Sandy Hook, that really changed everyone’s perception of the gun culture in this country and who was able to access weapons and what they would do with them once they got them,” Terry said.
She said she saw the shooting and thought, "this is crazy."
“We shouldn’t have to live this way," she said. "I care about my children and their safety and I want them to be able to go to public places and be safe,” Terry said.
According to a study by the American Academy of Pediatrics, disasters and traumatic events like seeing mass shootings in the media or experiencing personal violence, can have potential short and long-term psychological effects in adults and children.
Bordere said, “We may see a child who is more distracted, has changes in behavior, eating, sleeping, communication or anger. Sudden deaths betray our sense of trust in the world, so it causes children to really question their sense of safety in places that are important to them, such as the school environment.”
Bordere said, although many parents mean well, avoiding discussing these issues and hiding their own distress can give the wrong impression to children.
“We get little education on how to deal with loss, although it’s a normal part of life across development,” Bordere said. "We really are a society of people, right now, who are grieving losses of people that we don’t even know."
She said initial instincts can be wrong.
“Communication with children, as difficult as it may feel, often is actually empowering for children because we’re able to clarify any misunderstandings about the violent death that occurred,” Bordere said.
That’s why, she said, dealing with the problem head on can lead to better results when coping with the issue. She suggests keeping routines the same for children, ensuring a sense of safety and avoiding the use of clichés.
Children interpret language literally, she said, so clichés relating to death such as, "they’re all going on a trip" or “they all fell asleep,” can make a child afraid of everyday life. Bordere said being simple, concrete and direct with children is a better solution.
She also suggests giving children other outlets to express their emotions. She said planting a garden, making a donation to charity, or writing a letter to the family of the deceased can be therapeutic.
"It's important to establish some sense of power at a time when their worlds are feeling very shaken. These things can help do that," she said.