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The Aurora Shooting: How to Talk to Kids About What Happened in Colorado

by on Jul.20, 2012, under Adolescents, Behavior, Child development, Communication, Learning, Parenting, Safety, Sensitive Topics, Uncategorized

The horrific tragedy in Colorado has left us all speechless, shaking our heads in disbelief. How could this have happened? Could anything have been done to stop this mad man?  And what can we possibly tell our children…if they ask?

Parents are rendered tongue-tied when it comes to talking to their kids about many different kinds of things—sex, death, God.  But when it is a topic that is terrifying and may create fear where none existed previously, then we are dumbstruck, reduced to being mute.  This is one of those times. How do you explain a senseless massacre in a movie theater to your vulnerable child, whether he is 8 or 18?

To start, unless your child has been exposed to this incident–by radio, TV, internet or overhearing your loose talk—there is absolutely no reason to bring it up to him.  However, if your child comes to you exclaiming, “Did you hear what happened at the Batman movie?” your first job is to find out what he knows.  Ask him to share what he heard. That way you will know what information you need to address or correct to the best of your ability.  After you share the correct information, and your child asks, “Why did he do that?” you can explain something like:

Just like people sometimes have problems with their bodies, like a hearing impairment or a leg that doesn’t work, for example, once in a long while someone has a severe problem with his brain.  The guy who did the shooting had a big problem with his brain. It didn’t work properly, and he did a horrible, crazy thing.  He could not think right.

 You may need to add for reassurance:

 This doesn’t happen very often at all, most people’s brains work right. But once in a while someone’s mind doesn’t tell him what is and isn’t okay to do. He simply doesn’t know right from wrong, and he can’t stop himself from doing crazy things.  But this is very very rare; it doesn’t happen very often at all.

If your older child, 10 years and older depending upon his maturity, comes to you wanting to talk about it, open up the flood gates and encourage the conversation. Ask him what he thinks might have been going on with someone who does something so horrific. Then share the same observations about mental illness, and the rarity of the act.  Not only will he share the burden of his fears with you, thereby lessening his load, but you will be able to reassure him of the randomness of the act and how remote the likelihood of it happening again is. You might also discuss how the media and internet bring terrible news instantly and relentlessly.  While it is an unfathomable act, having it thrown into your consciousness makes it even bigger. You can’t escape it.

In truth, there are no fool-proof precautions that you can teach your child when it comes to being safe at all times, including when he goes to a movie theater. Beyond knowing where the closest exit is and to leave calmly in the event of an emergency, people are sitting ducks in theaters.  Is this going to stop you or your children from going to see films? I hope not.

If your child had planned to see the latest Batman, forbidding him from going will likely fuel his fear that a shooting like this will happen again. You need to communicate to your child that the day-to-day world in which we live is actually safe.  This heinous event is not the norm, even though knowing about past events like Columbine and Virginia Tech make it seem like tragedy strikes often.   This terrible massacre was a singular and highly extraordinary event

The hard part is that you need to believe this too. Your children will pick up on your feelings.  Do your best, for them.

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5 Comments for this entry

  • Susan

    I was driving three 11 year old boys to camp this morning. They spent the whole time talking about the shooting and how they would have escaped (crawled along the floor) and then tackled the shooter and taken his gun away. Normal?

  • Betsy BB

    For sure normal. And, besides being a good listener, Mama, your job is to reassure and help the kids to know that it was a rare event. I love that they are proactive and figuring out how to escape. Would that it would have protected those poor souls.

  • Wendi Knox

    Thank you for this Betsy. We have been relying on your wisdom ever since our son, Landon, was in nursery school. Now that our “baby” is 17 (!!!) and in a pre-college art program at RISD, I am nervous knowing that he and his friends are going to see the Batman movie tonight in Providence. I am re-reading the advice you gave here, to calm myself. So, it seems that we will never outgrow our need for your perspective and insights.
    Thank you, again. And again. And again.

  • Jeannine

    Betsy – you always have the best way to deal with these kinds of things with our kids – I have shared your wisdom with many. Thank you

  • Betsy BB

    It is gratifying to me to be helpful to you! Thank YOU for taking the time to comment.

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