What to say to a child about tragedies, such as the high school shooting that left 17 people dead, is no simple or easy task, but there’s local help for those struggling with how to do that.
Hospice of Chattanooga offers a variety of free support groups both for people who have used the nonprofit’s services and for general members of the community.
In addition to hosting specific meetings for widows/widowers and general grief groups, the organization has a dinner event for families who have experienced significant deaths. After dinner, organizers divide the attendees into small groups, based on their ages, for group discussions.
Individual help is also available.
It’s important to call and talk to a counselor, who can help people find the right session, before attending. Click here for more information about that.
The Hamilton County Department of Education also has resources for its students. Counselors can help children suffering from worry or grief as a result of these incidents, spokesman Tim Hensley said.
In the aftermath of the Parkland, Florida, shooting, Hospice of Chattanooga bereavement director Susan Latta shared some tips for discussing violence and death with children.
Consider the age.
One of the first things to think about when figuring out how to address these topics with children is their age, she said.
Small children, such as a 4-year-old, will have a different level of understanding than an 11-year-old. Teenagers, who are likely using social media and watching the news, will require a different approach than younger children.
The licensed marriage and family therapist, who is also a fellow in thanatology, suggested keeping the news off around young children.
Let the children take the lead.
For most ages, Latta suggested asking questions and finding out what their understanding is about what has happened.
Asking them what they’ve heard is a good start, she said.
“You want the kids to take the lead,” she said. “I would encourage people to be honest, but you have to be mindful of how honest you are. Hopefully, they know their kids. For a 6-year-old who is anxious, you have to be careful with honesty. You don’t want to increase their anxiety.”
For older children, such as teenagers who may read about exactly what happened and imagine themselves in the situation, validating fears is important, she said.
Parents can say things like: “Yes. That’s scary to think about. I can’t imagine what that would have been like.”
Latta said that parents and adults may want to ask questions such as, “How are you feeling about what happened?”
They can also reassure students about safety procedures that are taken to keep them safe while at school, she said.
“You want to validate their fears,” she said. “You want to keep your routines with the family normal. If you have your own anxiety, talk with an adult, not within the kid’s ear[shot].”
Take care of your own anxiety.
It’s natural that parents would be having anxiety about sending their children to school in light of so many attacks.
“That’s an honest feeling,” she said.
Parents and other adults should check in with themselves and take time for their own mental health, she also said.
That could mean verbalizing the anxieties with other adults by texting, stepping away from the children and making a phone call, or taking a walk or some deep breaths.
Find ways to calm the anxiety, whether it’s through exercise, breathing, prayer or another method, she said.
“It’s really important that the parents take care of themselves,” Latta said.
Know you don’t have to have all the answers.
“I think it’s OK to say, ‘I don’t know why this happens,'” Latta said. “You don’t have to have an answer.”
Don’t blame mental illness.
Equating mass shootings and mental illness can increase the stigma surrounding mental health issues, she said.
“Try not to blame mental illness,” she said. “There’s a lot of mental illness out there and a lot of people who have that who are not going to do mass shootings.”
Be prepared. Think of the good.
Spending time as a family can help, and part of that can be creating an emergency plan at home, she said.
Latta grew up as the oldest of five in California, and her family had a plan that if there were an earthquake, they would all meet at a specific tree.
Implementing safety plans may help decrease anxiety. Remembering the good in the world may, too.
“Remind them that the world is a good place,” she said. “[Remind them] to continue to be kind to others.”