How To Talk to Your Kids and Teens About the Mass Shooting in Allen
The recent shooting in Allen, Texas has profoundly altered our community. Many families are wrestling with how to talk about this event and similar tragedies with their children and teens. Chase Oaks Care Pastor Shanda Gunter sat down with Laura Harrison, LPC and clinical director of Lifeologie Richardson, to discuss how to handle these important conversations with our kids. Read more of their conversation, below:
Shanda: Hi, I'm Shanda and I'm the Care Pastor at Chase Oaks. Laura Harrison, a licensed counselor, is here with me. And we wanted to talk today about how to talk to our kids about what happened at the Allen Outlets? I know I was very unprepared to talk to my children and my students that I work with on how to care for yourself afterwards, or any of the context around it.
What do we say, and what's good to say to a child vs. to a teenager? Laura, you're here to help. So could we start with how we can talk to younger children, like elementary age kids first?
Laura: I think the one thing you have to assume is that they've heard about it. I think especially with kids that are in school, they have probably heard about it. If they are at home with you and you've had the TV on at all, or you've been talking to your friends, they probably have heard some bits and pieces of conversations, even if you've been trying to shield them. So we need to to go ahead and allow it to be part of the conversation, but allow the child to lead the conversation.
So basically your conversation will start with a child-centered approach. You can say, “So, tell me what you've heard. Do you have any questions? Is there anything that you're concerned about?” A lot of times, we lead with information instead of leading with questions. But you want to address them where they're at, and maybe have multiple conversations to revisit the topic over time.Especially with the younger kids, to go back and say, “Hey, I just wanted to check in with you about that. Is there anything else you're concerned about, anything you're worried about?” Younger kids are really good about telling you those things.
Older kids might hold back a little bit more. So sometimes you need to be a little bit more direct with older kids. So, I think that's one of the most important things you can do, is to not necessarily lead with information, but lead with questions. That can be really helpful.
One other thing I want to make sure to talk to parents about is to limit exposure. A lot of times in these situations, we want to get a lot of information, to have the TV on or the news on and follow information. But the best thing we can do to protect our kids is to keep that focused in adult world and not in kid world, and make sure that if you're watching the TV or you're watching information, that it’s not necessarily in your child's view or in their hearing, so that they have space to process that. They don't have to process that in the moment and hear all of that information repeated, over and over.
Shanda: And then what about teenagers? Most teenagers have phones and they're so connected, and there's just a lot there. And then on top of that, they're scared to go to school and now they're scared to go shopping and go hang out their friends. So what are some things that we could do with that?
Laura: Yeah, I think you can't downplay how serious it is because we don't have assurance that it won't happen again. We can't say, “Hey, this isn't going to happen” or “You're going to be fine.” And so we have to be educated about where we go and how much exposure and risks that we take, because these things can happen.
But overall, most days—the majority of days it doesn't happen. And so look what is safe, what we know is true. For example, about school, talk to them about what you know is true about what the school is doing to protect you. And if you don't know, then find out that information.
Ask for information from the school and see if they can help you to reassure the kids. It's okay for them to take a mental health day and to stay home and to feel safe at home, because they can't always enter into those spaces without having some of those feelings. And they will have feelings about it. And it's okay.
I think one thing we'll see a lot of is…that was a mall that a lot of people go to and a lot of kids will just get dropped off there, which is perfectly fine. And they would hang out and spend the day shopping. But now something that felt normal and safe for them has been shattered. So for them to have feelings of being scared, even going to the grocery store or being in a large crowd, that's really, really normal.
To allow for space for that, the best thing you can do is to keep routines as normal as possible, but also to allow space for anxiety and fear. Say, “Hey, I can understand why you would be afraid to go to school. I'm kind of afraid for you to go to school, too. But here's what we know to be true in the situation. We know that we have security there. We know that we have teachers that are trained there. We know…” whatever you can say that is true about the school, say that.
And if you have concerns or questions about that, I encourage you to talk to the people that are in charge of those things at your school and have them reassure you as well.
Shanda: And could you give us an idea, too, of what to do if we notice that our child or our teenager is showing an abnormal level of fear and angst around it? Or maybe it's going on for a prolonged period? What are some signs that we can look for, and what are some action steps that we could take?
Laura: I think if you notice that your child is withdrawing from activities they normally took joy in or really limiting their social activity to a point. It's normal for them to do that for a short period of time after an incident like that. But if it goes on for weeks or even a month later, then look at whether this is something where we need to go talk to a therapist or is this something that we need to just sit down and have a conversation about, to see how they respond to that?
Sometimes this will trigger other incidents that have happened with the kids. I mean, maybe if they were exposed to another traumatic event, this can cause that to come back. So we need to really focus on making sure that they have people that they can talk to. If they don't have people that they can talk to, maybe set up time with a therapist or set them up with a trusted friend or mentor and help them to have a safe place where they can talk occasionally. Kids will feel like they don't want to burden their parents with their fears; we need to let them know that it's okay to talk about those things.
And some of that comes with you talking about it too—being okay with saying, “You know, I'm having feelings about that and I'm having fear about that too.” That can open the door for those things.
One thing I think is good to do is to focus on looking at ways where people are working together to help solve the problem or to help other people… noticing those things and mentioning those things as well. “Hey, you know, I notice that there's a lot of people gathering to talk about this at the church. I notice that there's a lot of people coming around these families and providing money and resources for them.” That can help to reassure them that there are still good things happening in the world.And I think it's also really important to intentionally look for areas of joy. We have a lot of things that are negative that have happened around this situation, but in our daily lives, we still have areas of joy and things we can celebrate and not to downplay those. And that's a balance. We want to honor what has happened, but we also want to still be able to have joy and hope in our in our everyday lives.
Shanda: That's so good. Thank you. I know that's very helpful. I would have liked to talk with you sooner about this because I'm talking with my oldest son, who’s nine, and I probably could have done the conversation differently! But now I know. So thank you, Laura.
Looking for more resources or info about counseling for you, your child, or your teen? Visit our Care page, here.