You turn on the TV and see the news coverage of another mass shooting. The most common reaction is to have multiple reactions ranging from wanting to ignore it, turn off the TV and do everything within your power to not let you children even know it happened, feeling numb because this is happening way too much, to wanting to know every detail of the event because your brain is telling you if you know, you’ll be able to protect yourself and your family from being a victim.
The events that we are exposed to second hand (meaning you were not actually there at the time it occurred but are seeing news, radio, you tube or other witness accounts) can lead to PTSD. First, limit your exposure. 24/7 news coverage means that you and your children are at ahigher risk of secondary trauma if you continue to watch and be exposed to the event over and over again. This is especially important if you or your child are already struggling with PTSD. It is understandable that you want information, however how often and in what format that information is received is extremely important. You could filter it through a friend or family member, asking for updates only no more than 2xs a week, turn the TV from any news coverage and stay off websites that provide coverage. Get out and do things that get you away from the event and the coverage. Maintain your normal routine as much as possible.
In terms of speaking to your children about the event, let your child’s age and social exposure be your guide. If you child is young and is not around other children or adults that could talk about the even, it may be best to not burden them with it. For school age children or children who attend daycare with older children, they are bound to hear about the event or learn about it from others if not from you. A good way to inform your children is to give basic facts without too much information such as, “You may hear other people talking about an event that happened in Las Vegas where a very bad man hurt some people. Many helpers stopped him and protected and helped the people who were hurt. We do not have to worry because he can never hurt anyone again. We are safe and you are safe. If you have any questions, let me know and we can talk about it.” Then let the child lead any subsequent conversations. Forcing is not helpful. If your child asks a question, answer it truthfully in an age appropriate way, but don’t give more information that is sought. Don’t provide extra details that may be scary. Let them know if it ok to be upset by what has happened. Also model calm and controlled behavior for your children. If the TV is on they are continuing to cover the issue, simply turn off the tv and divert your child’s attention. Continue to go about your daily routine as much as is possible.
The most important step is to reassure children of their safety. For younger children, ask them to look for helpers. This was a phrase from Fred Rogers that often help children focused in times of crisis. Look for the police officers, fire men, and even the ordinary people who are there and willing to protect and help. There are way more protectors. I like to highlight that helpers are often every day people who are around them all the time- teachers, neighbors, friends parents, ministers, older siblings, grandparents.
For teenagers, it is important to process rational thoughts. Their growing brains are better able to handle complexity of facts like statistics like they are much safer in school or even in a crowd than many of the things they do without a second thought like riding or driving a car. They do these activities without preoccupation and using those skills with this tragety is important. Putting the risk in context is often helpful. It is also essential to model for teens. Putting your thought process into words is positive. “I choose not to click on every weblink about the tragedy because it often upsets me more. I know what I need to know and I choose to take care of my emotional self and focus on something more positive.”
For children and teens, be aware they are at a greater risk of mental health problems when exposed to a trauma. Observe their emotional state and be aware they most often express their concerns non-verbally through a change in mood, behavior, sleeping, eating, and socialization. If you notice a change, please seek professional help.
For yourself, notice your own reactions and emotional responses. Just like children, you can also be susceptible to secondary trauma. If you find yourself thinking about the event when you do want to do so, having nightmares, physical reactivity or distress after being reminded of the trauma, flashbacks to what you have seen in the new coverage, having overly negative thoughts about the trauma, decreased interest in activities, isolations and difficulty feeling happy or content, irritability, aggression, startle easily and difficulty sleeping or concentrating- please seek professional help! Our therapists at MACS are here to help you and your children.