Parents and caregivers are looking for answers on how to talk to their kids about the tragedy in Uvalde, Texas, in which a gunman shot and killed 19 children and two teachers at an elementary school. Local mental health experts say that parents can help by encouraging conversations with their children, validating their feelings and reassuring them that tragedies like this are still rare.
Dr. Gene Beresin, executive director of The Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at Massachusetts General Hospital and professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, told GBH News that parents should create space for children to ask open-ended questions like “How are you feeling about what happened?” and “What’s going through your mind?”. He said parents should listen and validate their responses.
With young children, Beresin said parents can “use a lot of TLC” and talk about how they themselves may be struggling.
“If they want to sleep in your bedroom — fine. If they want cuddle, if they’re having troubles or nightmares, have them stay with you,” he said. “Let them know that you’re feeling sad too. They need to know that you have some feelings about this as well.”
The grief and healing process is long, and parents should be aware that children may take time to process it. “This is going to be a marathon, not a sprint,” Beresin said. “The folks from Parkland, Sandy Hook are still struggling.”
Usha Tummala-Narra, a research professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Boston University, said that parents should consider using simple, straightforward language to explain traumatic events like the one in Texas, while avoiding overly dramatic statements.
A sense of “connection” to safety is important for children right now, Tummala-Narra said, and can come from parents as well as other adults in their lives, like teachers.
“Sometimes adults tend to avoid talking about these traumas because they're worried they're going to trigger more anxiety for children,” she said. “But I think there's a way that teachers and other adults in the school can acknowledge what has happened and reassure kids that they're going to do everything they can to protect their children in the school.”
Processing a traumatic event can take months or even years, Tummala-Narra said, and she encourages parents to embrace normal, routine activities like chores or playing with friends. “Doing things that are joyful are really important. I know it can sound kind of trite, but in fact, it's really important in maintaining that balance,” she said.
In the short term, limiting kids’ intake of graphic and disturbing news reports can help, experts say.
“If you as an adult want to listen, you have that right. You also have the right and responsibility to protect our children and not super saturate them with this,” said Eric Fleegler, a pediatric emergency physician at Boston Children's Hospital.
Fleegler researches gun violence and the epidemiological approaches to reducing it. He said it’s important to be honest with kids and acknowledge how difficult the events are to process for both adults and children.
“These events are almost beyond the comprehension of the human psyche,” he said. “There's no way they're [parents] not thinking about what are the chances that this could be my school, my child.”
It can help to explain the truth to kids — that statistically, these events are still extremely rare despite how shocking they are, and parents should feel that school is still a safe place for their children.
“We need to recognize that when kids ask questions, probably the most important question they're asking — whether it's said or unsaid — is, am I safe? And it's our responsibility as parents to let them know that they are and that we are doing everything we can,” he said.
Fleegler notes that in 2020, guns became the number-one killer of children in the United States, surpassing car accidents and medical illness. Despite that, it’s still unusual for children to die by firearms — particularly in a school shooting.
“We still know that our schools are safe,” Fleegler said.
GBH News’ Mary Blake contributed to this report.
WATCH: Strategies to support kids’ mental health needs after mass shootings