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How to talk to your child after a school shooting

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Cape Cod Children's Place
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Explaining school shootings to a child is a daunting task. There are many questions to consider such as, "Is my child too young to understand?" "Can my child handle this information?" "Can I handle this conversation?"

The Eastham-based nonprofit, Cape Cod Children's Place, has been a haven for families and children that need support.

CAI's Kathryn Eident talked to executive director Cindy Horgan to help us navigate these conversations.

Eident Good morning, Cindy. Thanks for joining us.

Horgan Good morning, Kathryn. Thanks for having me.

Eident So, Cindy, let's say we're on the way to work and our six year old, and I'm picking a child here, hears the news about this mass shooting and wants to know more. What is your advice for a parent who may be gripping the steering wheel just a little bit tighter when they hear that question?

Horgan My first advice is to know that gripping that steering wheel tells us that you are feeling this really deeply. And to take that big breath, to get yourself regulated, because these emotions are huge.

And then first response is, "I'm so glad you asked me that question so that we can talk about this. Remember that my job as your parent is to make sure you're safe. And I'm bringing you to a school where I know that they practice safety. Sometimes scary things happen, but we know as a family that we're going to work hard to keep ourselves together and to keep ourselves safe. So, let's talk more. Do you have other questions
you want to ask me?"

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Cape Cod Children's Place
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Cindy Horgan, Executive Director

And I think at this point, one of the things that I think is really important with that young child is helping to have perspective. When the TV is continuously rolling the same scene over and over, for a young child, that can feel like it's down the street. And granted, those children, and those families in Texas, it was down the street. For us here in this moment to let them know that we're far away from where that happened, and that in school we practice how to stay safe. And so, let's talk more about that and keep inviting the conversation.

And your child's going to let you know when they have had enough information. But the reality is, is that they may come back again. And we always have to have our radar on for what maybe they're not seeing.

Eident Yeah. And I want to ask you about that, but I want to turn to older students, Cindy. We quoted a principal this morning who basically said that students, especially those who are older now, these shootings have become kind of horrifically normalized for them, that they've heard about this so many times. How, with that knowledge, might you change the way you approach questions or maybe, I don't know, checking in if you've got a pre-teen or a teen?

Horgan Well, I think that that's really important. I mean, the overload of news media, social media has really done something called desensitize us as a as a person. And I think it's really important for sometimes with that older teen, we teach emotional intelligence by owning our own emotions. And for me to say to my teenager, "Listen, can we sit for a minute? You don't have to say anything, but I need to tell you what's in my heart right now. I'm feeling anxious when I'm hearing about this. And I want you and I to be able to know that we can come to each other."

And so I think you bridge that conversation with sort of identifying where you are as the parent at this place. That child is not responsible for your emotions, but I think they need to have permission to have them in by you honoring them and giving them a voice. I think you give that to them.

Eident And of course, it can be cathartic to talk about it, but then you're also hopefully modeling some healthy behavior because emotions, as you said, are big and they can be really overwhelming, especially right now. You mentioned that with children of all ages, when a child is done talking about this, they may go away, but that might not be the end of the questions. And you should keep your radar up. What kinds of behaviors should parents be watching out for in children who might be frightened or triggered by this kind of information?

Horgan Well, children tell us a lot by their play. They tell us a whole lot. So, I would really watch how they play, and I would listen to their language.

The other piece to this is that when children experience stress, it's not unlikely for them to regress a little bit in where they are. So, for example, a child that's been sleeping in their own bed for a long time may start showing up at your bed at night. And that's an indicator. They may not be able to put language to it, but they're telling you, "Something doesn't feel right in my world."

And so, if I had the recommendation—stick to routines. Be consistent in more than anything. Turn off the social media. Turn off television. Because we continue to re-traumatize every time we keep doing that, watching it. Seeing it again and again.

Eident And, I imagine maybe that advice might be pertinent for the adults listening to this, too. Do you have any tips for us, or for parents?

Horgan I do think it's really important to be able to know that you, too, should reach out to someone if you need to talk about this and how this feels. And I think it's really important that we do take a break from the news feeds.

It's important that we're aware and it's important that we know what's going on. But when we sit in front of it for hours and hours, it truly takes a hit on our whole self and our soul.

But I do think for parents to reach out, I know that at the Children's Place we continue to say, "If you just need to talk, give a call here and we're here to listen and help you process this."

Eident I think so much of it in times like this is processing and trying to find the language and find the ways to give yourself a healthy outlet for all the emotions that you're feeling, no matter how old you are.

Horgan Yes. And you know, I think that that's a key piece that we, too, are going to go through so many emotions. And one of them, anger, is a big one. Anger is based often in fear and sadness, and the fact that we can't control when something like this happens.

Eident Cindy Horgan, Executive Director of the Cape Cod Children's Place. Thank you so much for joining us this morning with your perspective and your advice.

Horgan Thank you for having me and Kathryn and to everybody: Be safe. Be well.

Eident Thank you.

This conversation was lightly edited for grammar and clarity.

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Kathryn Eident is an award-winning journalist and hosts WCAI's Morning Edition. She began producing stories for WCAI in 2008 as a Boston University graduate student reporting from the Statehouse. Since then, Kathryn’s work has appeared in the Boston Globe, Cape Cod Times, Studio 360, Scientific American, and Cape and Plymouth Business Magazine.