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Duke expert: How to discuss the Las Vegas shootings with children

Published October 3, 2017 | Updated October 16, 2017

stock photo - girl looking at laptop
stock photo - girl looking at laptop

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As details of the October 1 mass shooting in Las Vegas continue to be released, children seeing news reports or learning details at school may be susceptible to anxieties about the events or the potential of similar violent incidents in their communities.

Robin Gurwitch, Ph.D., an expert in child traumatic stress who has been involved in events from terrorism (e.g., Oklahoma City, 9/11, and Sandy Hook) to disasters (e.g., Katrina, Joplin and Oklahoma tornadoes), guides parents and other adults on how to inform children about the events and help them understand and cope with related anxiety.

“A parent’s first instinct is to shield their child completely,” Gurwitch said. “But having this important but difficult conversation worded in an age-appropriate way can offer children clarity and reassurance.”

Gurwitch offers suggestions for parents in talking to their children:

  • Start a conversation. Ask children what they know and correct rumors, misinformation and misperceptions.
  • Check in on how they’re feeling and validate their feelings. Come back to check in on a regular basis.
  • Recognize that talking about events and sharing their feelings can be difficult; it takes trust, courage, and support to share their thoughts.
  • Don’t be afraid to say “I don't know,” to questions such as why someone would commit an act of violence or terrorism. Answer in an age-appropriate way to the best of your abilities.
  • Use the events to discuss your values and beliefs about how we treat others.
  • Limit exposure to news coverage and social media.
  • Find ways to perform a simple act of kindness for someone else (e.g., writing a letter to first responders or helping a neighbor).

View more detailed guidelines on helping children. >>

“A parent’s first instinct is to shield their child completely, but having this important but difficult conversation worded in an age-appropriate way can offer children clarity and reassurance.”

-- Robin Gurwitch, Ph.D.

Robin Gurwitch is a Duke clinical psychologist and member of the National Advisory Committee on Children and Disasters, the American Psychological Association’s Disaster Response Network, and the National Child Traumatic Stress Network. She is a nationally recognized expert in supporting children after trauma and disasters.

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