After this morning’s mass shooting at a church in rural Texas left at least 26 people dead, many parents are wrestling with how to explain the seemingly inexplicable act of violence to their children.
The shooting, with victims’ ages ranging from 5 to 72, comes just over a month after a gunman opened fire on a crowd at a music festival in Las Vegas, killing 59 people.
In the aftermath of the two recent gun massacres, which occurred at places young people frequent — a concert and a church — here are what experts say parents and caregivers can do to help their children cope with such events.
Robin Gurwitch, a psychologist and member of the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, told ABC News it is important for parents to initiate such difficult conversations with their children.
“It’s important for parents to start the conversation,” Gurwitch told ABC News last month after the Vegas shooting. “As much as we would like to wrap our arms around our children and try to keep anything bad from getting through, it’s unrealistic that we have that ability.”
In addition, for children old enough to understand what happened, parents should focus on letting them know that they are not in specific danger, Gurwitch added.
Dr. Lee Beers, a pediatrician at Children’s National Health System in Washington, D.C., said a tragedy does not have to be traumatic for children if it is “buffered by good, strong and caring relationships, by the adults around the child.”
Beers, who spoke to ABC News after the Vegas shooting, also recommended different responses for different ages, and an individual approach for each child.
Preschool age: This is a time when parents have a high level of control over what their children see and hear so it does not need to be brought up unless a child hears about it first. In that case, Beers recommended making sure the child knows the caregiver is there to answer any questions.
Elementary school age: This is an age when parents should preemptively help their child know about the tragedy and share basic details and leave the door open for them to ask questions, Beers said.
Middle and high school age: Beers advised having a more detailed conversation with children. Start by asking questions like, “Have you heard about this?” and “What do you think about this?” to find out what they know and what may be bothering them.
Beers added that parents should limit their children’s exposure to potentially frightening images and videos that may emerge, especially on social media, in the aftermath of a mass shooting.
“Repeated exposure to viewings really does increase the stress and trauma in your emotions, in the way that you respond to it,” Beers said. “It’s very tempting to watch the coverage 24-7 so I think really self-limiting that is really important because that repeated exposure escalates the emotions and escalates the feelings.”
Gurwitch added that many children may have already seen some frightening images, and parents should let their children know that they can discuss what they have seen.
“Parents should let their kids know that, ‘I’m here to answer any questions you may have, any worries you have we can discuss,’” she said. “Check in at the end of the day to see what their friends were talking about at school and what they saw on social media so they have an idea of where they’re starting from and how to continue the conversation.”
If parents and caregivers notice children are overly worried or having trouble focusing at school or at home, Gurwitch said not to delay in reaching out for help, and to have patience.
“Acknowledge that there may be a little bit of extra help that is needed with homework, care and attention around bedtime, and that’s true for younger children as well as teenagers,” she said. “If you don’t know what to do or what to say, there are people you can turn to ask what you can do for your child.”
Gurwitch and Beers also recommended the American Psychological Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, school counselors, family physicians and local mental health counselors as resources for parents.