How are we explaining to young kids what just happened in Orlando? Another senseless tragedy has occurred, this time in Orlando, and our deepest sympathies go out to all the families who have lost loved ones and the Orlando community.
As I watch the news and read the papers, I keep asking myself, what about the kids? How are the children in Orlando being impacted? Who is talking to them? Who is explaining to them what just happened in Orlando? How is the community helping the little ones understand why their parent, teacher, babysitter, or neighbor is no longer with them? Especially the youngest ones… how do you explain such a violent and traumatic death to a young child?
In fact, what are parents and teachers saying to children across the nation? Children are being exposed to the Orlando shooting via television, the internet, friends, and adult conversations. The Brady Foundation reports that since Sandy Hook, 160 schools have experienced shootings. How should we explain this violence and death to our younger children in ways they can understand and cope with given their innocence and as yet immature developmental abilities?
As we mourn the loss, it is essential that we not forget the silent victims, the innocent bystanders, the children who are watching, listening, and feeling from the sidelines. We need to continue to support and help young children cope cognitively and emotionally with this tragedy. Here are some suggestions:
- We can explain the shooting to children in simple, non-graphic facts. Kids know what happened. Keeping it a ‘secret’ or making up a story about it may only add confusion and mistrust.
- We can use simple words and simple sentences that avoid hate and racism.
- We can tell children that this is a very sad event that should never have happened.
- We can ask children to ask us any questions they might have about what happened or about themselves and their loved ones.
- We can reassure and comfort children in telling them that this violence was not an every day occurrence, and that children are safe.
- We can reinforce and tell children that the adults are working hard to keep all children safe.
- We can turn our televisions off while children are in the room, and make sure adult conversations take place with only adults in the room.
- We can help children mourn and grieve, and process their thoughts and feelings via books on loss, puppets, drawings, and stories. Children process through ‘displacement’, in that it is safer to express thoughts and feelings in non-direct vs. direct ways.
- We can write letters, draw pictures, and send toys to children in Orlando.
- We need to focus on delivering community tools and making mental health interventions readily available to young children to help them process and cope with gun violence.
Many mental health professionals and organizations are committed to helping children and families cope with chronic gun violence in our nation. As a clinician and an author, I am in the process of publishing a therapeutic children’s picture book, Where Did My Friend Go? Helping Children Cope With A Traumatic Death. My hope is to make this book freely available as soon as possible to the children in Orlando via sponsorships of organizations and the larger community. If you are interested in learning more about this book and being a sponsor, please reach out to email@example.com
The children in Orlando are going to need tremendous support in mourning the loss of their loved ones, and in grieving with their community. Our children around the nation are also going to need significant support in comprehending what just happened in Orlando. In the past 24 hours, I have had kids ask me, “What about us? Are we safe? What if it happened here? At my school? Or my grocery store?” We need to comfort and assure our children that they are safe.
Most importantly, if kids are living in fear and worry that it could happen again, at any time, to them and their loved ones, we need to continue to send the powerful message and deliver the actions that will keep our children and families safe.