Talking to kids about tragedy in wake of Maine mass shootings

In the wake of the mass shootings in Lewiston, Maine, many parents are navigating how to talk to their kids about the tragedy.

Dr. Christine Crawford, child and adolescent psychiatrist at Boston Medical Center, tells Boston 25 News there is no one right way to talk to kids but simply talking, listening, and reassuring are key.

“One way to start is to ask the kids what do they think about the current situation, how does it make them feel, what have they heard about it, so you know exactly where you’re starting from,” Crawford said. “From there they can talk about what feelings and emotions it brings up for them.”

Parents should reassure kids they are safe, she said, and that there is hope in a world that seems scary.

“Safety is key because for a lot of kids, especially young kids, they just want to know the adults in their lives can take care of them and keep them safe,” Crawford said. “But when you hear about all these unsafe events, it makes kids wonder, ‘Are the adults able to protect me if something were to go wrong?’”

As some families talk to their kids about what to do if they encounter a gunman — especially after mass shootings in which children and schools have been targeted — Crawford said having this conversation may not only prepare kids but also empower them to say something if they see something amiss.

“Having those conversations with kids early on can make it such that they feel as if they have a sense of control over a situation in which it’s difficult to have control,” Crawford said. “Just like how we talk to our kids about wearing a seatbelt, about not talking to strangers, unfortunately, in this current day of age, we have to talk to our kids about how to be safe in different environments.”

The Maine tragedy has unfolded in the midst of a manhunt for a killer in Gardner, Mass. As parents process both events and worry about their kids, making Halloween plans and simply going out in the world, Crawford said they should be honest with their children about their own anxiety and concerns. When parents become anxious, withdrawn, or consumed by updates on their phones, kids take notice and can internalize or model that behavior.

“Our kids are watching out for us. They’re watching and listening as we navigate the world, how it is we manage and cope our anxiety,” Crawford said.

Crawford believes it is encouraging that society is talking about the emotional well-being of kids processing traumatic events after many years of dismissing children’s feelings.

“It really goes to show how far we’ve come when it comes to thinking about trauma and children,” Crawford said. “Oftentimes, adults would think, ‘Oh, they’re just a little kids; they’ll get over it, they’re not noticing, they’re not paying attention to these things.’ But what we know to be true is that they are, and we know it can impact how they feel, how they function, how they operate in school, and how they communicate with each other and with us.”

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