Work Samples

Talking to your kids about traumatic current events


Parents once again have to find a way to talk to their children about traumatic current events and a mass shooting. Despite the desire to shield kids from upsetting events, in the age of social media, there is almost no way to keep anyone but the youngest from the news.

“The world is a little crazy right now and how do we keep that in check for our kids when we can’t protect them from all the things that are happening?” said Maureen Brogan, program manager of the Traumatic Loss Coalition for Youth, run by Rutgers-Behavioral Health Care.

Parents must attempt to discuss the events of Dallas, Minnesota, Louisiana — as well as the murder-suicide in Carlstadt and double suicide in Westwood — in an age-appropriate way. It is important to reassure them of their safety, the continued normalcy of their life and not add to a child’s anxiety.

“The No. 1 [mistake] is feeling the need to give more details than the child is even capable of understanding, because it’s not age appropriate or they didn’t even go there and now we’re leading them there,” Brogan said.

For ages 9 and 10, ask questions, said Mitch Schonfeld, the president and CEO of Bergen Family Center, who has a masters in social work. Find out what they know, what their friends are saying and go from there.

“The main thing you want to come away with is not make the child feel that they’re in greater danger because of the world being insecure,” said Schonfeld. “You really want to try to stress, whoever’s the adult — I’m here as your parent, we’re trying to keep you safe and make sure you have as much of a normal day to day as possible and answer any of your questions and talk about why you might think these things are happening.”

Parents also must keep their own emotions in check, because a child takes their cues from adult behavior and let the conversation end if the child moves on.

Teens and young adults, however, are likely going to need more than reassurance. They need to be shown they can take some control, something Schonfeld has tried with his two children, ages 18 and 20.

“They get really stressed out and depressed about the world and see a lot of injustice,” he said. “So what I’m trying to do with them is say ‘Yes, there are bad things that go on and there are people who are trying to make it better.’ Point out some positive things that are going on and also say to the extent that you and your friends can make choices, you obviously can choose more positive behavior, you can choose to be part of a process — maybe 16 and up — can be part of a process of voicing your opinion in some way whether through a social media campaign or signing a petition or something like that.”

Schonfeld remembers the 1967 riots in Newark, the riots at the 1968 Democratic Convention and the Kent State shooting in 1970.

“There was crazy stuff going on in my adolescent years,” said. “But this feels different because it’s random. And social media makes it more immediate. People just can’t get away from it.”

Mass shootings, which are happening over and over again, create a kind of emotional contradiction in people — it becomes both normal and traumatizing.
“You get numb to it, but it’s also more pervasive,” Schonfeld said.

Mass shootings and police-involved killings ignite emotional reactions on issues such as race, religion and guns. In crisis, however, it’s not the time to go on a tangent about politics or guns or society’s larger issues, Schonfeld said. Later, in calmer moments with distance between the event and the conversation, parents can discuss these larger issues with older children.

“Children still need to see you as somewhat able to keep it together and not to be dishonest with your feelings, but not lose control of your feelings,” he said, noting that this is true in any kind of crisis situation. “A tirade against racism probably wouldn’t be that helpful. Should people have gun or not have guns? That’s not really what your child is coming to you to help them with. They are looking for you for normalizing and feeling safe.”

It’s important to know your child, as well. For those with anxiety, events like this can trigger more issues. For a child who can identify with the violence in some way, it may also cause more intense reactions or even trigger the emotions of any loss the child has had in their life. While it may not remind the adults in any way of the death of Grandma or the beloved pet, a child’s brain may make that connection and grieve all over again.

This is a good opportunity to help teach and practice coping skills and stress the idea of seeking help when needed, according to Brogan. While you want to take the focus off the shooter when talking to children, Brogan said, parents could talk about the person as someone who was confused or angry and unable to properly deal with his emotions, someone who didn’t ask for help.

“Using it as an example, ‘If something were bothering you, if you don’t want to talk to me about this, who is your trusted adult?’” said Brogan. “Help-seeking behavior is so important and that becomes something that young people keep with them their whole lives. It becomes a coping mechanism. ‘When things get overwhelming, there are people I can talk to.’”