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Tragedy in Aurora: talking to your kids about violence in the news

July 27, 2012

 I am an overprotective, careful parent - a big fan of seat belts, bike helmets, and sunscreen. I think I’m probably a little more overprotective and careful than some parents, and I know this about myself and try to keep it in check. I try not to stifle my child’s natural sense of adventure and curiosity. However, I want to keep any and everything that could be dangerous or hurtful away from my little boy.

The tough reality is, sometimes bad things happen. Sometimes, bad things happen to us and sometimes they happen around us. The recent shooting in Aurora is one of those bad things, to put it mildly. What happened in Colorado recently is horrible, a real life nightmare.

The media coverage of the situation in Aurora is intense. Immediately after the shooting and for the days that followed, television, radio, newspapers, and internet were constantly streaming updates. As a parent, watching the footage and hearing about what happened caused my level of anxiety to rise and heightened my protective instinct.

Still today, as gut-wrenching as this massacre is, many of us just keep watching. It’s hard to turn away from it. It can be easy to forget that while we are getting caught up with the latest developments, the littlest members of our families might be nearby. And THEY don’t miss a THING.

Hearing about this tragedy can be confusing or scary for little ones. What kid isn’t familiar with Batman and The Joker (whether they’ve actually watched the movies or not)? My own little boy carries a Batman backpack. Hearing that a man, saying that he was The Joker, came into a movie theatre and shot and killed people is likely to cause a reaction in a kid: worry, fear, sadness, or even fascination.

Older kids and teens may even be more informed than we are. Thanks to constant live-streaming of updates into smartphones, tweeting, and good old television, these “big kids” are always in the loop. They are just as likely to have some sort of emotional reaction, whether they openly admit it or not. They are also more likely to show anger, due because this is a movie they themselves might choose to go see. This tragedy might hit pretty close to home for them.

So, how, do we navigate discussing with our kids what happened in Colorado?

Here are some thoughts:

Turn off the technology

At home, we rarely put the news on when our son is around anyway, but especially not in the past couple of days. The only updates my husband and I have watched were after our son is asleep. In the car, we’ve been playing CDs, or have just turned off the radio.

Navigate the internet for your kids

Our son does not get on the computer much, and when he does it’s to play math games online. He knows how to turn on the laptop, connect to the internet and enter in the address of the website. However, our laptop goes directly to a news homepage after connecting to the internet. We’ve begun to limit him accessing the internet (and simply step in to do that part for him) to avoid seeing any images or reading any headlines that might be disturbing.

Think before speaking

Kids are curious. My son will act like he’s in his own little world, playing quietly nearby or reading a book a few feet away, but is really just trying to get in on the grown-up conversations that my husband and I are having. We have figured out his little routine and proceed accordingly. We don’t talk about the shooting casually or when he’s around.

Talk about it

When discussing the tragedy, first, make sure that you’ve got it together. Presenting with a calm demeanor will help your child feel calm as well.  If you are emotionally shaken from watching footage or seeing a particularly moving interview, take some time for yourself before you talk to your kids.

If and when you do talk, remember that there is no need to make it too complicated. Simply meet them where they are. They may not want to talk about it for more than two minutes. That’s okay.

Don’t overwhelm them with details they don’t need to know, but let them know the basics:

“Someone came into a movie theatre and shot people. Some people died and some were hurt. A lot of people didn’t get hurt at all. The police caught this guy. He is in jail and will not be hurting anyone else.”

Ask them how they are feeling about it, and be honest about your feelings:

“I’m sad, too, and that’s okay.”

Let them know that you understand their concerns about safety, but that what happened in Aurora is a random, unpredictable tragedy and not something that they need to worry about happening to them. Remind them that, as parents, we will always do everything we can to keep them safe.

Anytime an event of this magnitude happens, people’s feelings of vulnerability increases.  We feel shaken. Going to the movies is a common pastime for just about everyone, and suddenly our comfort in this activity has been taken away. Movies are an escape, a way many of us cope with the stresses of daily life. Now, just going to the movies can bring on feelings of stress. We all must cope with our feelings about this.

Many people deal with tragedies like this by trying to find something they can do to help.  Kids can make handmade cards or write letters to the community of Aurora. Funds can be donated to reputable causes dedicated to bring help and relief to families. Adults and kids can benefit from empathizing with others, and in the process they can contribute to the healing process of those experiencing this tragedy firsthand.

If we experience (or notice in our children) high levels of anxiety, anger, or sadness that do not get better within a few weeks, it is important to recognize that and deal with those feelings. Whether we find support through family and friends, seek out ways to help others in Aurora, or talk about our feelings with a mental health professional, we owe it to ourselves and our families to be the best we can be.

How have you navigated talking to your family about the shooting in Colorado?

For more information on ideas, tips, and thoughts regarding talking with your kids about tragedies: