After the May 24 shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, children may be left with a wide variety of questions about the events that transpired, the shooter’s motives, and their own personal safety.
Bearing this in mind, Texas A&M Today spoke with Annmarie MacNamara, a clinical psychologist and assistant professor in the Department of Psychology and Brain Sciences, about her advice for parents facing these difficult conversations.
What should parents know about how children process bad or scary news? How might they be affected differently compared to adults?
MacNamara: When children are faced with bad or frightening news, they go through a series of reactions, some of which overlap with adult experiences and others that may differ. These reactions may include: integration of a traumatic event into play (eg, playing shooting games after a school shooting); attempts to predict when a traumatic event might reoccur; irritability; nightmares; concentration and attention problems or social withdrawal. Children may also show loss of newly acquired developmental skills. They may have psychosomatic difficulties, such as stomachaches, and may be more clingy than usual. Children’s reactions to trauma must be understood in relation to their age and in a context of changing development.
What questions might children have about the events at Uvalde, and what should parents keep in mind when trying to answer those questions?
MacNamara: Depending on their age, children may have a number of questions as they try to understand the events in Uvalde and how to integrate this information into their world view. For example, children can ask if someone was injured or killed; if a school shooting could happen at your school; or why someone would do this. Parents can provide factual answers at a level that is appropriate for the child’s age and ability to understand. Parents can also be honest that they, too, are upset about the events and may have a hard time understanding why they happened. However, it is also important for parents to monitor their own reactions, as high levels of emotion or fear in a caregiver can further distress the child. It is important for parents to remind children that they are safe and that parents and teachers will work to keep them safe.
What can parents do to support their children and address their mental and emotional needs in the wake of such an event?
MacNamara: Parents can invite their children to talk about the event, such as asking how they feel about the shooting or if they have any questions. Depending on the child’s developmental level and how she responds to the event, drawing a picture or interacting through play may be an easier way to communicate her feelings. It is important for children to feel that they can talk about the shooting and their feelings, but they should not be pressured to do so. Each child will have their own individual response to the event and their feelings must be validated. Over time, encourage children to return to normal; for example, going to school is part of normal life and should continue despite difficult feelings and anxiety. If children seem especially upset or for an extended period of time (for example, more than a few days), seek professional help.
How can parents talk to children who may be afraid or hesitant to return to school after this, especially if they themselves are experiencing similar anxieties about their children’s safety?
MacNamara: Parents can generally take an open and honest approach with their children, but they may not want to express high levels of anxiety or emotion, because this could be too much for the children and could increase their distress. Sharing and validating feelings is important, while continuing to lead as normal a life as possible, including going back to school. Avoidance of fear-inducing activities tends to increase anxiety and fear; therefore, in the long term, it is important to continue participating in these activities.
Is there a balance to be struck between shielding children from bad news and talking to them about it? What type of approach is best for a child’s long-term development and well-being?
MacNamara: Although it may be difficult to bear, the reality is that we can no more protect children from bad news than we can prevent bad or disturbing things from happening. When a child finds out about something that upsets them, it’s important to be there for them and support them so they know that whatever they’re feeling is valid. After validation, we want to model the coping skills and functional behaviors that may need to co-exist with ongoing fear, anxiety, or sadness. The details of how this is done will depend on the child’s age, but could focus on acknowledging, expressing, and validating feelings while choosing to continue to participate in normal activities of daily living, such as going back to school or seeing friends .