How to talk to kids about what happened in Uvalde

“The very best thing you could do is talk with your kids and start that conversation. Silence actually tells the kids that what happened is so horrible that you can’t even speak of it.”

By Alexandra HartMay 25, 2022 8:18 am, ,

It’s difficult to comprehend the trauma felt by residents of Uvalde in the wake of Wednesday’s tragic school shooting. And it’s also difficult to gauge the ripple effects that are being felt far beyond the city. A question many parents have in the wake of violence against children is how and whether they should address the tragedy with their children.

One expert says talking about it, and being honest, rather than ignoring such an event, will help both parents and kids’ mental health. Jeff Temple is director of the Center for Violence Prevention at the UT Medical Branch in Galveston. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: When these acts of violence happen, I imagine there’s lots of trauma that the surrounding community has to grapple with. Can you say more about how that trauma affects communities?

Jeff Temple: Absolutely. And we know the closer you are to the trauma, the more impact it’s going to have. And so within the community, within the people in the community, there’s going to be a sense of grief, helplessness, anxiety, anger, disbelief, sadness. It’s basically going to run the gamut of these very difficult emotions. And we see it with adults and we see it with children, in fact, with kids, oftentimes it’s manifested differently because they can’t vocalize how they feel. So it’ll often come out of stomach aches or headaches or even regressing in their behavior, bed wetting or throwing tantrums, that sort of thing.

Can I ask you about the decision not to hold any more classes for the remainder of the year? Clearly, it’s so much for the school to have to deal with. Traditionally, schools have been a first line of triage when it comes to trauma, especially where kids are involved. Could you say something about that?

I think there’s no right answer in that, whether they come back or whether they don’t. But you’re absolutely right. This is a first line of defense to notice changing behaviors. You could be able to pick out kids who may be more affected and give them the resources they need. So I think a best case scenario would be, sure, close down for the rest of the semester, but then offer in a few weeks or a month, have a week of classes where kids can come back., where they can process what happened. They can talk about it in an open environment, in an age-appropriate way. Learn a little bit and also give the opportunity for teachers to recognize the kids that may need a little bit more help.

How do you have this conversation with your kids? What is age-appropriate? I mean, there’s a whole range of questions that seem to come up as a practical matter for those of us still trying to process what happened.

The very best thing you could do is talk with your kids and start that conversation. Silence actually tells the kids that what happened is so horrible that you can’t even speak of it or that you’re scared that it’s going to happen [again]. So, yes, absolutely. Talk to your kids no matter what their age. And you can start the conversation by just asking them what they already know and they do already know. With social media and kids talking, they more than likely already know and it’s OK to bring it up, even if they haven’t heard. Ask them what they know. Listen carefully. Give them all the space and all the room, so that they can talk. Listen for anything that might be even more tragic than it already is, or misconceptions or fear. And then gently correct that fear and in an age-appropriate way, talk about their sense of safety and the fact that schools are remarkably safe despite this extremely scary event.

I think there are a lot of parents who worry about that question, How does a parent reassure a child of their safety given the level of atrocity that we’ve been discussing?

I think you talk about as a family some of the safety precautions that you have. Most schools, if not all, have the buzz-in thing, have double doors. The kids have seen those since Sandy Hook, some of those changes that have been made to harden the schools. Talk about some of those safety measures. Talk about how terrible it is, but how unlikely it is, and that they can continue to feel safe at school despite this. But also, listen to them and empathize with them and say, ‘I know it’s scary. I know that this is sad. But here’s some of the things that we’ve put in place as a family that the school has put in place to keep you protected.’

How do you move forward? There’s the initial news and then there’s ongoing support, not just for kids, but for ourselves – for the many parents who are asking themselves questions after such horrific acts of violence. How do you support kids and for that matter, ourselves?

When we talk about kids, all the things that they go through – shock, sadness, anger, disbelief, all that stuff – we’re experiencing the same thing. We might be a little bit more able to process it and maybe compartmentalize it. But we’re experiencing the same sort of stuff that they are.

I will say being there for yourself and being there for your kids: one of the first things to do is to turn off the news and get the right amount of coverage, what you need to know. But you don’t want to inundate yourself with that. And be a good role model for your kid because they shouldn’t be watching it. And if they’re young, they should be watching zero news coverage.

And then just continue to be there for your kid and yourself and listen to your body and your thoughts and your feelings. And if after a month, they continue to be negative, you might need some extra help – or if that’s happening with your kid,

I would say that prevention also is key. And I don’t mean hardening, I mean behavioral and socioemotional learning, and starting at elementary school and continuing through middle school and high school. And emphasize that to your school district.

We talk a lot about the mental health of young people, especially through the pandemic and through many other incidents that have come up. And certainly we deal with large number of weather disasters and that sort of thing. And we have spoken with you in the past about these. What can we do more proactively? And is it up to the schools? Is it up to parents? Who bears that responsibility?

Well, it’s a great point. And unfortunately, in this area, we’ve experienced tragedy after tragedy from school shootings to the freeze, to storms here in the Galveston area, to the Travis Scott [Astroworld] concert. It just seems that we are just inundated with a traumatic event after another. I think it lands on both public institutions and the home environment – sort of a belt and suspenders approach to prevention. And since we can’t avoid totally these future traumatic events, what we really have to do is work on inoculating our kids to this stress. And what that will look like is school-based programs and community-based programs where we talk about mental health and we encourage mental well-being and healthy relationships. So that we can fortify our kids about these future events.

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