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How to Talk to Your Kids After a School Tragedy

Posted on Feb 19, 2018

Patrick Mularoni, M.D.

Many parents are having a hard time knowing what to say to their children at this difficult time. Patrick Mularoni, M.D., from Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital gives parents some tips to help their children understand gun violence at school.

What questions should parents expect from their children about the Parkland, Florida, shooting?

Many parents are facing a difficult decision as to whether to approach their children about the tragedy that happened at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Parents have a very important role in helping their children understand what has happened and how events like this relate to their lives and their safety. Most children have access to personal media devices where they learn about tragic events. Understanding what your child has heard about this tragedy is the first step in knowing how to parent in this situation.

If you are a parent of middle and high school age children, you should assume that they have heard about the event. In this age group, it is a good idea to debrief children about the event and address your child’s knowledge of what happened.

Parents should talk to younger school children as well. Younger children are more likely to share misinformation because of a lack of understanding of the events. For younger children, it is best to keep your conversation basic and age appropriate. You should give them a chance to ask questions, which will help you know how detailed the information you give should be. The most important message you can give a younger child is that you love them and are doing everything you can to keep them safe.

We know that children may be stressed as they return to school. What are some of the issues that stress can create in kids?

I think that the first symptoms to look for are irritability and anxiousness. If your child is acting differently, especially if they seem distant or irritable, the best initial way to deal with this is to sit down and talk with them to help identify if this new stressor is the cause. Some children may complain of headaches, and as we know, increased stress can definitely present as a headache. In addition, lack of sleep can lead to headaches. In the Emergency Center, we see kids presenting with headaches at the beginning of the school year and after breaks as they transition to a school schedule and deal with lack of sleep. This same pattern would be present if a child is up worrying or having nightmares. If your child is complaining of headaches, one of the first things you should talk to them about is their sleep. Headaches can have a bunch of different causes including illness but two of the most common problems in the school age group are stress and poor sleep patterns.

Kids might ask questions about what they should do if a situation like the one that happened in Parkland happens at their school. What should a parent to say?

In the past, I would have said to tell them that these events are exceedingly rare, but although they are rare, they seem to be increasing. In our conversations, we need to reinforce safety behavior with all kids. For older kids, it is important to let them know that you are there for them to discuss anything that they hear or see online that bothers them. It is important that children understand that if they see something, they should say something. With younger children this may be a good time to talk to them about gun safety, stranger safety and the use of 911.

This is a very difficult time in our country and as we all struggle and with tragedies like the school shooting in Parkland, we need to remember that these events may be affecting our children even more than we realized as they go back to school this week.

This information was shared on WTVT-TV’s Doc on Call segment, which is aimed at helping parents learn more about children’s health issues. The segment airs each Monday morning on Good Day Tampa Bay.

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