by Donna Nahlik, Prevention Specialist II, Chestnut Health Systems
Shootings at movie theaters, shopping malls, national attractions…these have occurred all too frequently in the past few months. If these tragedies leave adults wondering what in the world is going on, can you even imagine what our kids and teens are thinking?
Parents used to be able to shield their kids and teens from some of the big news events happening in the world. As long as they kept them away from the evening news and didn’t leave the newspapers lying around, they were in the clear. Those days are long gone. Teens today have instant access to all of the news, whether we like it or not. News is available 24/7, and if you think they are not hearing about things just because they are not watching cable news, you are sadly mistaken. Most kids have access to a number of online news outlets like Facebook and Twitter. If your teens do not have access to these news sources, chances are they are hearing about things from friends who do.
When the theater shooting in Colorado happened in July, I actually first heard about it from a group of kids at a leadership camp. I had not checked the news that morning (oops…overslept) and was completely unaware of what had happened. The teens, however? They had already gotten the information from multiple sources and were discussing possible motives on the part of the shooter. Yikes…these were 8th and 9th graders.
What is a parent to do? Well…obviously we cannot hide this away from them. We cannot protect our teens from hearing about horrific occurrences. The best that we can do is talk to them honestly and then listen to what they have to say.
• Be honest with them about your feelings. Don’t shelter them from your emotions, or they may feel like they are supposed to be “stoic” too. It is OK to say, “I was really scared when I heard about that”. Support them and let them know it is normal to feel grateful that it happened somewhere else and not to anyone that they know. It is also normal to be scared…and sad…and angry…
• Tears are OK too. Letting your kids see that you feel deeply sorry for the families of those affected helps them to learn and show compassion as well.
• Be honest about the risks. Do not tell your teens that “this is never going to happen at your school…or our movie theater…or our church”. We cannot offer certainties, and teens may see that statement as just pacification…like a pat on the head. Instead, say something like,” While tragedies can happen anywhere, it is very unlikely that anything like that will happen here.” This tells your teen that you are acknowledging the risks but think that you are safe in your environment.
• Ask questions. Do they feel safe? Are they afraid? Talk with them about things officials are doing to ensure their safety in school and in the community.
• Talk about the how they should react if something does happen when they are in a public setting. Although this can be upsetting to even think about, it is important and even empowering to know what to do in tragic situations. Having a plan is always better than being uncertain.
• Listen. If they want to talk…sit down and just listen. Sometimes they simply need to get it off their chest. We do not understand how someone could walk into a crowded theater and start shooting…how on earth are our kids going to understand? They may have lots of questions. “Why would someone do that?” is the big question. The only answer that I have ever been able to come up with is that we will never fully understand how a person can purposefully take the life of another person. The legal and medical systems will determine what should happen to the perpetrators after the fact. All we can do is treat everyone with respect and hope that people contemplating these kinds of acts get the help that they need to make better choices.
Above all, just be there for your kids. These incidents are striking uncomfortably close to home for them…and for us as well. I overheard kids say things like, “It was just a movie…I go to movies all the time”. When things like shootings in movie theaters happen, reality (and mortality) smacks us right in the face.
Hug your kids…and talk about it.