Supporting children following the mass shootings in Orlando.
I have had the privilege of working with children, teens and their parents for nearly four decades within various programs and agencies. For three decades I was employed in the public sector as a youth advocate providing counseling, support groups and crisis response as needed to children of all ages. As a Quaker and Friends Minister, this same work began before and continues still, providing pastoral care and outreach to people within and beyond my wider faith community.
Personally, it always saddens me to know that I needed to “update” the content of this article with each new tragic event over the years, from Columbine, Virginia Tech, San Bernardino, to the lingering horrors of Newtown, just to name a few. And now, following the mass murders at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando Florida on Sunday, June 12, our nation is reeling once again.
Following such tragedies, especially when the sheer magnitude of the crime grips our collective conscience nation-wide, I update and repost what I know about methods of helping young people cope with parents and others who work with youth and offer some approaches to the typical concerns that we all have for our children. Hopefully, what follows below will prove helpful.
Parents: Honor the emotions and real questions that come from your children, and resist saying or telling them more than they have asked about or what they may need to know or need to hear right now. It’s important to be honest with answers, especially with older elementary aged children, but don’t go overboard. When beginning a conversation, “zipper questions,” such as, “so what do you know,” or, “what have you heard,” and “what are your thoughts” are good places to start.
These days many of us, children and adults alike, silently worry about being caught in a public place when a shooting or mass tragedy takes place. Such thinking, sadly, has become instilled in our collective psyche, awareness and oftentimes fear. Our children feel this too, and at times will talk about it openly. As a parent, if you sense that your child has a heightened awareness and fear of something happening at their school, at a camp or other recreational venue that they frequent, it’s best to offer some assurance as needed. In the event that your child expresses fear of something happening at school, I believe that it is helpful to continue to affirm what we know as a statistical fact, that schools as a whole are safer than many if not every other place, and that your child will be taken care of and kept safe by the adults in their respective schools. To say anything less only instills fear, uncertainty and worry that does not add to their safety or emotional well-being.
Monitor media INTAKE
Monitoring media intake by children after a mass shooting is especially important. Most experts recommend not allowing children to watch any of the video coverage of the tragedy at all, but to choose a good time that works for your family to encourage a quiet discussion about what your kids may know already, and what may be on their minds, etc.
We too, as adults, benefit by apportioning our own exposure to the endless videos and first-person accounts on TV, on our phones and other devices where social media may be exploding with not only news in real-time, but with personal and politically based reactions that frequently neither adds knowledge nor promotes healing. Doing so, by osmosis can help our children, too. Print media is often a better place to get the facts without the ever-present hype and drama that TV inherently provides.
While young ears are listening, I suggest that now is not the time to engage in outspoken dialog with other adults about the pros, cons and political ramifications of gun control and gun violence, where God was, or wasn’t, our security in other public places and the psychological profiling of “could-be” offenders, all of which is swirling about on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media outlets at this time. There will be plenty of time for those important discussions in the weeks and months ahead minus the understandable raw emotions and frequent speculation of presumed facts we all feel at the moment.
Because of the sheer number of lives lost in Orlando and with the knowledge that so many were young adults, Latino, and members of the LGBTQ community, the carnage has understandably gripped the hearts of people everywhere. It has also traumatized whole communities of people who have socially, politically and racially been discriminated against in the past. Parents of teens should especially check in with their sons and daughters, who verbally say little, but may be hurting inside for themselves or their friends.
It may be helpful for us, as adults and as parents to understand and expect that numbness, sadness, anger and fear will be present within ourselves and even our children. Making meaning of death is never easy, and making sense emotionally of such a horrific act, within our own selves, is nearly impossible. Finding ways to honor the lives and memories of those lost, even if by remaining aware of the funerals and prayer vigils in Orlando and elsewhere, can help, with time, to bring some sense of closure for us as parents and for our children. Everyone will hear about “how it all happened,” but parents can help their children who may be most affected to process too by sitting with them and explaining how the Orlando community as a whole comes together, grieves together, and honors and remembers the lives lost with funerals and memorial services.
Families connected to a faith community may find solace and comfort in both worship services and by the pastoral care that may be available through clergy and other faith leaders. This is an important resource not to be overlooked, which is available to both parents and children.
One of the challenging variables here is for children and teens riding the school bus to and from school for the first few days following a highly publicized tragedy. It is hard to know and impossible to control what other students might say that your child could overhear. It’s important for parents and after-school care providers to provide time and to listen closely and get a feel for how their child is doing upon arriving home after school.
Supporting Teens Specifically
Here’s what I’ve shared with many teens in the past on the heels of a national tragedy:
- Be gentle with yourself, this is hard stuff to make any sense of. Talk with your parents, a counselor in school, a teacher who you know that will listen and help.
- When horrible things like this happen, it can make you really sad, angry and sometimes scared too. These are all natural feelings. Journaling and writing poetry helps some teens. Doing artwork helps others. Consider listening to music that you find soothing, that helps you chill, seems to help many teens too.
- Be careful online. There are lots of people pushing their causes, their politics and their point of view right now on Facebook, YouTube and Tumblr. Some of these people are angry and many others have their facts wrong, too.
- Remember that when we discuss things like death and violence online that some other kids out there likely have lost loved ones too, and all this is really hard for them to handle. If you’re their friend, reach out to them privately and let them know you’re thinking about them. It really helps.
- It’s true; nothing can bring these people back. But what you can do is this: To honor the lives of those lost, consider doing something that helps others in your community. There are lots of ways to volunteer and help others, you just have to do it! It can help you to feel better too.
- Keep in your head that it’s never okay for anyone to think using guns to commit violence is okay. If you see or hear of anyone, anywhere “talking stupid” do yourself and the world a favor by telling an appropriate adult right away. It’s always import.
- Remember, talking with a parent, your parent, is still (usually!) the best thing you can do first. They’re old, they’ve been around for a while and believe it or not, talking with them can help you to deal with all this.
For all of us
In closing, I am reminded of the words of the late Fred Rogers, when asked how he could remain so positive and upbeat about the goodness in other people. He said that when bad things happen in the world, it’s important to remember also all the many good people who show up to help, to rescue, to protect who they can and to help the survivors to heal. That sounds like pretty good advice to me.
Resources to consider:
Below are a few good online resources that parents and others who work with young people might find useful to consider.
Mayo Clinic: Tips for talking with children and teens about mass shootings
American Psychological Association: Helping your children manage stress after a mass shooting.
National Child Traumatic Stress Network: Talking to children about the shooting.
Text and image by Kevin Lee