Feighan: Look for kids’ cues in talking about shooting

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

Maybe it was my sharp inhale or furrowed brow. Within seconds of reading the first text alerts about Sunday’s horrific mass shooting in Orlando, my son, who just turned 6, saw my face and started asking questions.

“What’s wrong? What happened?” he asked.

As we drove to a nearby park for a family picnic, reading text alerts about the worst mass shooting in U.S. history, my husband and I explained that an angry man had hurt people in Florida — many people.

“Did they die? Are they in heaven?” my son asked.

“Yes, they’re in heaven,” I said.

My son didn’t ask why the angry man started killing people — thank goodness — because I don’t have the answer. I don’t know why we live in a country where innocent people, even children, are shot in churches, schools and nightclubs.

I can’t tell my son that. My naturally anxious boy gets scared enough about losing mittens and library books, let learning about our nation’s ugly history of gun violence and mass shootings.

But how do we shield our children from the world we live in? How do you tell them that no matter how many people die that guns continue to wind up in the hands of the wrong people and our politicians seem powerless — or unwilling — to do anything about it?

No matter how much we try to shield our kids, though, many will likely have questions. Doug Barnett, a child and developmental psychologist at Wayne State University, says trust your child’s lead. Kids ask about what they need to know to move on.

But consider your child’s age and answer questions with just enough information, Barnett says. For some children, it helps to do something after a tragic event. Barnett says consider writing a sympathy card or writing a letter to political representatives, encouraging them to do more to keep people safe.

“Small things like that can go a long way,” he says.

Dr. Ron Samarian, chief of psychiatry at Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, says parents know their own children best. If your child doesn’t initiate a conversation about what happened, he says don’t force it, but look for cues as a way to start a conversation.

“If they don’t bring it up, you can ask if they’ve heard something about it. If so, are they concerned? There’s two ways to look at this. If they don’t bring it up, they may not care or they are inhibited to ask. If they’re inhibited, there’s an opportunity to open up a conversation.”

Tailor your conversation to what’s age-appropriate, Samarian says. “If you’re too complex, they’re not going to understand it. If you’re too simplistic, they’ll keep asking questions.”

Whatever way you approach the conversation, “make it digestible,” advises Samarian. “Be honest at all costs, but you don’t have to be inclusive or detailed ... You have a teaching moment here.”

Sunday’s horrifying shooting, Samarian says, touches on so many issues — religion, sexual orientation, and gun violence — that some parents may have to check their own inhibitions about discussing some of these issues.

“The kids will probably be much more open to discussion of some levels than sometimes the adults will be,” he says.

And for those who’d like to shield their children from the news all together, you can’t.

“This is the world,” Samarian says. “Depending on the age, there’s a real big world out there. It’s a very interesting, but sometimes threatening place, and children need to grow.”