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There are 'no perfect words' for talking to kids about mass shootings, child psychiatrist says

TOPSHOT - Families hug outside the Willie de Leon Civic Center where grief counseling will be offered in Uvalde, Texas, on May 24, 2022. - A teenage gunman killed 18 young children in a shooting at an elementary school in Texas on Tuesday, in the deadliest US school shooting in years. The attack in Uvalde, Texas -- a small community about an hour from the Mexican border -- is the latest in a spree of deadly shootings in America, where horror at the cycle of gun violence has failed to spur action to end it. (Photo by allison dinner / AFP) (Photo by ALLISON DINNER/AFP via Getty Images)
Allison Dinner
AFP via Getty Images
Families hug outside the Willie de Leon Civic Center in Uvalde, Texas, on May 24, 2022. Grief counseling was being offered at the center.

Tuesday's mass shooting at a Texas elementary school – where a gunman killed 19 children and two adults, and injured many more – has become the deadliest event of gun violence in the U.S. so far this year.

Dr. Javeed Sukhera, chair of psychiatry at the Institute of Living and chief of the department of psychiatry at Hartford Hospital, wants to remind people to take time for themselves in processing the attack.

“We can’t pretend like every day is a regular day when these horrible things continue to happen, and when people are continuing to heal from the trauma of the previous thing,” he said.

Sukhera said recent events can be especially sensitive for Connecticut communities that feel the echo of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012.

“Some people are going to shut down, some people are going to start going into hyperdrive, going through the motions even quicker, because there’s also no ‘one-size-fits-all’ when it comes to coping,” he said.

Experts say traumatic events like the Texas shooting can cause confusion and fear among children, even those experiencing it from afar.

“All we can do as adults is to remind our kids that we love them, that they’re OK and that they’re safe,” Sukhera said, “and that we’re here, we’re present if and when they need us.”

Sukhera, who specializes in child psychiatry, said kids will process the mass shooting in different ways.

“It can be really scary sometimes as adults to try and find the words, so the best thing we can do is to free ourselves of that burden, to remember that there are no perfect words,” he said. “If we create the space, our kids can actually take the lead and let us know where they’re at and what they want to talk about.”

Resources for families

Families can find more guidance on helping children cope at the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and other health organizations.

AACAP offers these resources:

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network offers the following tips for talking to children after a shooting:

  • Start the conversation. “Talk about the shooting with your child. Not talking about it can make the event even more threatening in your child’s mind. Silence suggests that what has occurred is too horrible even to speak about or that you do not know what has happened.”
  • What does your child already know? “Start by asking what your child/teen already has heard about the events from the media and from friends. Listen carefully; try to figure out what [they know or believe]. As your child explains, listen for misinformation, misconceptions, and underlying fears or concerns.”
  • Gently correct inaccurate information. ”If your child/teen has inaccurate information or misconceptions, take time to provide the correct information in simple, clear, age-appropriate language.”
  • Limit media exposure. “Limit your child’s exposure to media images and sounds of the shooting.”
Nicole Leonard joined Connecticut Public Radio to cover health care after several years of reporting for newspapers. In her native state of New Jersey, she covered medical and behavioral health care, as well as arts and culture, for The Press of Atlantic City. Her work on stories about domestic violence and childhood food insecurity won awards from the New Jersey Press Association.

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