Mass Shootings: Reassuring Children After a Traumatic Event

August 8, 2019

America is reckoning with two new mass shootings, one in Dayton, Ohio and the other in El Paso, Texas – believed to be the eighth deadliest in modern U.S. history.

While processing the constant stream of disturbing media, parents must also anticipate the needs of their children by helping them process the upsetting news.

As a pediatrician and director of Columbia University’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness, I am offering some guidelines on how adults can speak to, comfort, and console children about these latest tragedies.

Children Under 6
If a child has heard or seen the coverage, provide reassurance they are protect and supply very minimal information. Acknowledge that there are bad people who hurt other, but you are safe. Reassure quickly and then move on with normal routines.

School Age Children
Try to limit access to coverage of these tragedies, because children may remember the distressing images more than your words. Reassure the child that these events are very sad, but extremely rare. Ask what they are feeling and ask if they have questions. In responding to their questions, answer simply and calmly.

Ask if they are aware of what has happened, and see if they will talk to you about their feelings or if they have questions. Teenagers may not talk much, even if they are very upset. Ask how their friends are reacting. With teenagers, the conversation may then move to a discussion of values and actions that can be taken to prevent further tragedies. Some examples of actions may include writing to congress, organizing with peers to address the underlying issue, or assembling with others to share their experiences. Feeling empowered may help some teens cope.

All Children
Based on recommendations by Dr. Harold Koplewicz, MD, President and Medical Director of the Child Mind Institute:

  • Remember that, like adults, children cope and respond in different ways. Some might want to spend extra time with friends and relatives; some might want to spend more time alone. Let your child know it is normal to experience anger, guilt and sadness, and to express things differently—for example, a person may feel sad but not cry.
  • Acknowledge what your child is feeling. If a child admits to a concern, do not respond, “Oh, don’t be worried,” because he may feel embarrassed or criticized. Simply confirm what you are hearing: “Yes, I can see that you are worried.”
  • Know that it’s okay to answer, “I don’t know.” What children need most is someone whom they trust to listen to their questions, accept their feelings, and be there for them. Don’t worry about knowing exactly the right thing to say — after all, there is no answer that will make everything okay.

For further information, contact Dr. Irwin Redlener through our Media Relations page.