If you’re anything like us, you’re never quite sure how to approach sensitive topics with your kids.
For instance, how do you talk to them about things like the deadly church shooting that happened in Texas over the weekend? Do you say anything at all? What if their friends talk to them about it first?
If you’re looking for a helpful resource to get you started, we’ve got you covered.
According to experts, what you say depends on both your child’s age and temperament. We found several helpful guides, one from ABC News and another from The Today Show (that we shared on our social media accounts during another mass shooting that recently took place).
The first thing they say you should do is process your own feelings on what happened. “First, you have to process your own emotional response. What you do will affect them more than what you say,” said parenting and youth development expert Dr. Deborah Gilboa. “Have your first reaction away from your child.”
We’ve combined their main tips below.
Preschool-kindergarten: One-sentence story
- Unless a child hears about it first, often tragic events don’t even need to be brought up. Why? Children under the age of eight struggle to process these types of events, so unless it directly effects your family, consider whether they need to hear it.
- This is a time when parents have a high level of control over what their children see and hear. Psychologists say it’s simply important to make sure our kids know we are there to answer any questions they have.
- If you do bring it up, parents need to keep their stories simple, experts say. Keep it to one-sentence. The stories you tell them should reinforce your beliefs. For instance, maybe you want your children to know that a bad man hurt people. Maybe parents want their children to know that someone with a serious illness felt angry and hurt people.
- This might even be a chance to change the conversation entirely. For instance, try focusing on the positives, like the heroes of the story.
Elementary school age: Shield Them
- With this age, parents need to decide on a takeaway message. What kind of story do you want your children repeating back to others? Children at this age are much more interrogative, and as the parent, you need to decide how much to share with them.
- This is an age when parents should preemptively help their child know about the tragedy and share basic details, while leaving the door open for questions.
- Experts stress that parents should prevent their children from seeing pictures or the news because the images will stick with children longer than words. If your kids happen to see pictures, experts recommend showing positive photos to help counteract the negative ones.
Middle School/Tweens: Listen to Their Feelings
- Children this age are ready to have a more detailed conversation. First, start by asking questions like, “Have you heard about this?” and “What do you think about it?” It’s questions like these that can help you pinpoint what they know and their feelings on the matter.
- If they have heard of it, listen to their feelings.
- If they haven’t heard of it, parents have an opportunity to share their beliefs while gaining better insights into their tweens.
High School/Teens: Look for Solutions
- This approach to talking to teens is similar to the approach you’d use to talk to tweens. First, ask questions to see what they know.
- Listen to their feelings and display empathy.
- At this age though, teenagers expect more, according to experts. They want to hear what parents and leaders have to say about the issues, but they also often want to take action on the issue. Action makes them feel effective.
- “Teenagers are looking for hypocrisy and solutions and this generation believes in collaboration and social justice. And they are going to ask ‘What are you doing,’” says Dr. Deborah Gilboa. “You can answer and then ask ‘what are you doing? What would you like to do? What can we do together?”
- Teaching teenagers to work toward change will help them be resilient, Gilboa says.
Ultimately, it’s up to us as parents to use our best judgement when talking to our kids about sensitive topics like shootings and violence. There are so many different approaches you can take. This age guide is just one solution several psychologists offer. Ultimately, the experts don’t know your kids–you do. It’s up to us to best decide what to do and say, since we know our children better than anyone.
Former news reporter and Capitol Hill press guru, wife, mom, and pastry addict.