Our post on how to support your child after a school shooting was written as an immediate response to the tragic shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on February 14, 2018. We are humbled to have seen how many parents benefited from such information and how frequently it was shared with others. In an effort to continue educating and supporting our community, we would like to provide a more detailed list of examples that can aid in supporting your children after any traumatic event.
Find a private, safe place for you and your child to speak and remove distractions such as phones and people whom your child may not feel comfortable speaking in front of.
Communicate with your child using your whole body. Turn towards them and maintain regular eye contact. Try your best to be self-aware of your facial expressions. An overly negative or judgmental facial expression may be interpreted by your child as a cue to stop communicating. Nod at them or verbally acknowledge them by saying, “yes” or “mm-hmm” to signal that you are listening and understanding what they are saying.
Let your child speak at their pace and allow space for silence. Respecting their need to stay silent gives your child time to process what they are saying and feeling without external influence. If you have a concern or question about something they said, make a mental note of it and ask it at a more appropriate time. Do not interrupt your child with personal anecdotes or with unnecessary comments.
Reflect and clarify what they are saying by paraphrasing things back to them. An example of this could be your child saying, “There was just so much going on, I didn’t know what to do” and you paraphrasing back, “It was a lot at once, and it was confusing.” Another example could be your child stating “I started thinking about my family and started crying” and you answering back, “It sounds like you were scared and sad.” Paraphrasing and reflecting may feel a bit awkward from the person who is providing it, but to the person receiving it, it sounds like active listening! Reflecting and paraphrasing is pivotal in showing your child that you understand them. You may occasionally reflect or paraphrase wrongly. That is totally okay. Your child will correct you and appreciate the effort, please don’t become worried or upset if this happens.
Although you may not have been present at the event, it is important for your child to know that you are trying your best to put yourselves in their shoes. Avoid using phrases such as “At least this happened” or “this person had it worse.” These phrases minimize their experience and invalidate their feelings. For your children to know that you are trying your best to empathize with them, let them know how grateful you are that they opened up to you and emphasize that you can’t even imagine how they must feel, but you will be there for them unconditionally.
Validate their feelings- Verbalize that the fear they felt was real, regardless of where they were during the event. No matter how strong the feelings they describe are, acknowledge how difficult it must have been for them to have whatever thoughts or feelings they experienced. Let them know that their feelings are normal and it is common to have such an experience after a tragic event. Be mindful of normalizing their feelings while not minimizing them. Normalizing an experience, for example, could sound like this: “It must have been so hard for you. It’s common to feel that way after a shooting. I’m glad you feel comfortable talking to me.” Minimizing a feeling or experience, which is something you want to avoid, could sound like this: “I know you were scared, but at least you weren’t hurt. Others had it worse. You should stop thinking about it so much so you can start getting over it.”
Ask open ended questions- This means that rather than asking, “Were you scared?”, which can be answered with a quick yes or no, you can ask something along the lines of, “How did you feel?” This allows your child to speak for themselves, use more detail, and therefore process the events in a safe, caring environment. If your child is bombarded with closed questions, the conversation may not go very far, parents may become frustrated or think that their child is doing just fine. Continue asking open ended questions in the days and weeks following the event as their feelings may change with time. This also helps your child understand that you are continuing to care for them.
Do not judge! This is very important. Many parents, in an effort to guide their children, use the phrases, “You should have…” or “You could have…”. This is one of the fastest ways for your child to feel judged and eventually stop confiding in you. What’s done is done, and they need support, not criticism. If there are concerns about how to react in the event of another tragedy, the child can learn from other resources when they have reached a more stable emotional state.
Last but not least, remind them of your unconditional love and support. Continue checking in with them in the aftermath and ask if there is anything else they may need, including speaking to a therapist if necessary. You know your child best, and it is important to help them engage in activities that relieve stress for them. If you attempt these steps and notice that your child does not feel like talking, or they start behaving differently, please call a mental health professional. Every person is different and may react to these events in different ways. Sometimes when people are traumatized, they fear discussing the event because of the extreme physical and emotional response that may occur when they re-live the experience.
We hope this can continue helping those affected and the South Florida community! Please feel free to call us for a free phone consultation as well as for any additional resources.