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Video provided by Newsy
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Ramon Padilla, Janet Loehrke George Petras, Jim Sergent USA TODAY
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video by Michael Schwab/Tennessean
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PHOENIX — When tragedy strikes, what do you say to your kids? And more importantly, how do you keep them from growing desensitized to images of devastation and violence?
The photos and screaming audio coming out of Las Vegas are stomach-churning for grown-ups. And while adults are increasingly confronted with having to explain the unfathomable to their children, the conversations don’t get easier.
The power of humanity
The single most important thing you can do, experts say, is to remind your children — both in words and deed — of the power of humanity. There are always people doing good and there are always ways to help.
“We can’t become numb to this or any other tragedy,” said Richard Weissbourd, a child and family psychologist with Harvard’s School of Education and author of “The Parents We Mean to Be.”
Las Vegas shooting: Complete coverage from the USA TODAY NETWORK
This advice is especially important for teens, who are routinely exposed to a non-stop diet of news, images and video on social media.
“It’s important for educators or parents to think of it in terms of empathy-building. In the case of Puerto Rico, ask (teens) to put themselves in the shoes of people on the island who experienced the flooding and what that must be like to be so isolated,” he said
General guidelines for all ages
No script exists for talking to children about tragedy, but experts agree on some general basics.
Check your demeanor. Know how you feel first because your child will want to know. It’s OK for your kid to know you’re upset, but do your best to remain calm. Children feed off their parents’ energy. If you are scared and anxious, your child will likely adopt those reactions. For parents who have difficulty coping with the tragedy, perhaps because of past experiences, it is important to find an additional support network. Try be in the same room as your children when you talk to them. Physical proximity helps them feel safer.
Don’t let fear drive the conversation. Parents will often make overly general statements in an instinctual effort to protect their children. For example, don’t say, “I’m never letting you go to a concert again!”
This is processing fear in an unhealthy way for both you and your child, said Abi Gewirtz, Lindahl Leadership professor at the University of Minnesota’s Department of Family Social Science.
Let the child lead the discussion. Ask children what they have heard about the incident and how they feel about it. Do your best to address concerns without elaborating on unnecessary, gruesome details, particularly if your children are younger. Be careful to use age-appropriate language and descriptions.
Clarify any misconceptions. This is particularly important for young children. For example: If they see the video clips being replayed on the news, they may not realize it is the same clip. They might think it is happening in real time, over and over again.
A makeshift memorial in Las Vegas (Photo: Robert Hanashiro, USA Today)
Reassure your child that he or she is safe. Calm your child by reminding them that authorities are doing everything possible to keep people safe.
Maintain your regular routine. This will help quell your children’s concerns about a changing or scary world and allow them to return to typical day-to-day life. Humans are creatures of habit, and schedules allow us to feel safe, Gewirtz said.
Don’t dismiss how a child feels. For example, if children say they’re anxious, don’t tell them they have nothing to be anxious about. “You don’t want to deny or stamp out how a child is feeling,” Weissbourd, the Harvard psychologist said. Validate their feelings and let them know it’s OK to have them and express them.
Ask why your child is anxious. “You don’t want to say they shouldn’t be without knowing why,” he added. “It could be because they’re afraid it could happen at their school. Or at your workplace. Or it could be about guns. It’s important to do some exploring first.”
Remind the child you’re here. The conversation may not be a one and done. Children often have follow-up questions days later and will want to talk then. It’s important for parents to remain emotionally available to their children.
Tips for talking to younger children
Emotional maturity varies from child to child, but many experts recommend shielding children younger than third grade from graphic visuals. Conversations are one thing, but allowing the same violence to loop continuously is another.
University of Minnesota Regents professor Ann Masten has this advice: If your child has learned about the shooting watching TV, for example, or from friends, but has a secure home environment with a strong support system, he or she likely will be fine and unaffected in the long run.
What about kids who in middle-school?
If they don’t yet have smartphones, middle-school aged kids often learn details about tragic incidents via their peers. This is problematic because the information may be wrong, misleading or confusing.
Start with basic fact-checking: ask what your kids have heard, said Stephanie O’ Leary, clinical psychologist and author of Parenting in the Real World.
O’ Leary advises parents to keep discussions honest, and if you don’t know the answer to their kids’ questions, admit it.
“Never make anything up. Don’t lie and say something didn’t happen, or it did happen but no one died. Don’t become a discredited expert,” she said. “Your kids will eventually find out. If you don’t have the answers, it’s OK to say you don’t.”
And finally … talking to teens
For teens, and even adults, who aren’t shielded from a daily media diet of tragedy, the challenge is to stave off desensitization, Weissbourd said.
How can parents preventing their teenagers from becoming jaded? “Instead of focusing on the suffering, have a call to action,” O’ Leary said. “Think about what you can do today, tomorrow and in your life, whether it’s donating bottles, of if you’re a person of faith, saying a prayer or sending a powerful meditation.”
Watch for warning signs
Many kids will respond to tragedies with anxiety or fear. But these are typically short-term reactions and a normal way of processing information, Masten said. But if you notice any prolonged, abnormal behavior for your child, seek help or guidance from a pediatrician or therapist.
Solace, security, service, support
Dr. Robbie Adler-Tapia, an Arizona-based licensed psychologist, offered these four easy-to-remember tips for discussing tragedy with children.
• Solace: Provide comfort and consolation for any emotions and fears to help kids feel secure.
• Security: Take steps to help children feel safe and protected. As soon as possible, get them to a safe location where they feel protected by people they can depend on.
• Service: Provide the essential services to meet basic needs.
• Support: If the children are victims, give them a post-incident safety period to rest and heal.
Follow Sonja Haller and Taylor Seely on Twitter: @sonjahaller and @taylahseely
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