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Q&A: How to talk to kids about mass shootings

FILE - A visitor prays at a memorial to the seven people killed and others injured in the Fourth of July mass shooting at the Highland Park War Memorial in Highland Park, Ill.
Nam Y. Huh
A visitor prays at a memorial to the seven people killed and others injured in the Fourth of July mass shooting at the Highland Park War Memorial in Highland Park.

As the beginning of the school year approaches, many Americans are still processing the news of the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas and — closer to home—– the July 4th shooting in Highalnd Park. Incidents of mass violence are difficult to tune out, and parents often wonder just how much information should be shared with kids.

In this interview with Dr. Hudson Riehl, WGLT asked for advice on broaching the subject with children. Riehl is a clinical psychologist with Carle Health who works with children and families.

The interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

WGLT: Because we’re talking about children of all ages, how should parents or caregivers determine if a conversation about mass shootings is even appropriate?

Riehl: The younger the age, the less likely the child is to have been exposed to the information. So in general, you want to assess how much they know. Ask questions and don’t assume that they know anything. Typically, with children younger than the age of 8, it isn't necessary to discuss it. However, given the amount of information that tends to be shared in classrooms today, you definitely want to figure out what does the child know and then go from there.

As parents, how should we go about not projecting or telegraphing our own anxieties to our kids during these conversations?

I think the first thing we would recommend is not processing this initially in front of your children. Start by talking this over with a trusted friend or family member and processing it first yourself. And if there's more than one parent involved that’s going to be talking with the child, make sure you both have an idea of the message that you want to send.

If a child is expressing anxiety about going to school in light of these events, how should we approach that as parents — especially if we are feeling similar anxiety?

Keeping ourselves and our children in a routine during times like this lends itself to stability. And you can use your own experiences to help validate your child’s feelings. I understand why you feel this way. I feel this way, too. You can share that. And then this is where we have parents have more knowledge. You can share with the child what the plans are at school and what protective factors are in place. So you want to validate the concerns, and then direct it towards the sense of safety and security. Reassure the child what is being done to keep the child and environment safe.

Do you have any advice for parents in managing our own anxieties?

Aside from all of the value of self-care, I would say — around this subject in particular — we want to be careful how much information we're in taking ourselves. Between our phone, and the news, and the internet, we can be inundated with messages. It’s important to remember that in the big picture, these are isolated incidences, as unfortunate and tragic as they are. And I think we can lose sight of that when we're constantly being fed news on these occurrences. So you want to keep that balanced perspective.

And again: Process feelings with friends and family — people you trust and confide in. We want to model the things we’re going to be asking of our children. We want them to be able to talk about their thoughts and feelings so we should be doing the same.

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