Parents in Minnesota and across the country are once again grasping for ways to talk with their children about horrific violence, wondering how or if they should discuss Tuesday's school shooting in Texas.
The instinct may be to protect children from the news about the 19 students and two teachers who were shot and killed at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde. But mental health professionals who work with kids say it's important to help them understand what they've likely already heard and confront how they are feeling.
"Sadly, this is not the first time we've had to talk about this subject," said Dr. Michael Troy, a clinical psychologist and the medical director of behavioral health services at Children's Minnesota.
Experts' guidance for those conversations starts even before the kids are in the room, with parents recognizing their own emotions and worries. Parents shouldn't assume that their child shares those feelings. From there, they suggest letting the kids guide the discussion.
The conversation can start with questions like, "What have you heard? What have you been thinking about? Are you feeling worried?"
The child's answers can inform the conversation and the message, Troy said.
"It's important to think about your child's age and how they react to stress and danger," said Anne Gearity, a mental health clinician and faculty member in the University of Minnesota's psychiatry department. She said a parent can tell a worried child, "We are safe now and because we're safe and here as a family, we can talk about it."
Gearity recommends not talking about sad or scary topics at bedtime. Rather, parents could talk to their children over dinner or during a walk.
The amount of information to share with a child depends on their age and their personality, Troy said: "It's about knowing your child and how they deal with difficult topics."
Troy suggests that parents think back to another time when they had to have a difficult conversation with their child about something sad.
"Parents feel that they have no roadmap of how to talk about a school shooting," Troy said. "But from the perspective of a child, they may have had sad things happen in their life and talked to their parent about it ... So that can be a template."
Just as the first conversation should be tailored to the child's needs, so too should any follow-up, Troy said.
"You can say, 'I may ask you about this to make sure I don't miss a time when you are worried about it,' " Troy said, adding that it's important for parents and children to know that it's also normal to not have ongoing worries.
"It's really OK for kids to not be walking around with the weight of this because that's not how all kids interact with the world," Troy said.
Gearity advises checking in with children through open-ended questions that allow them to share any worries. Parents should also take note of changes in behavior that could indicate ongoing fear or anxiety.
Taking action, such as donating to a cause or a memorial fund or doing something helpful in the neighborhood, can also help children find comfort, Gearity said.
Troy suggests limiting a child's exposure to news but not turning it off altogether.
"It's about making sure there isn't that constant exposure," Troy said.
That advice can apply to adults as well, he said.
"Parents, teachers and adults need to respect the fact that they may also need support," he said. "If we are bereft, it's hard to effectively be reassuring for our children."
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