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The local news footage is chilling. Hoards of people stumble out of the Colorado theater where a gunman opened fire on a packed audience for The Dark Knight Rises. One limping man's shirt is streaked with blood, and a child dressed head-to-toe in as Batman walks behind him, bewildered.
For the victims who witnessed the horrific act, some as young as 6 and even 4-months-old, the trauma is incalculable. But even for kids around the country following the news coverage the incident is devastating.
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"Batman is supposed to be their protector," child trauma expert and psychologist Dr. Francine Shapiro tells Yahoo! Shine. "With any type of tragedy spread over news, a child's own feelings of fear emerge, but parents need to take the 'hero stance' to restore their children's sense of security."
The first step is monitoring how much access kids have to the news story. "I wouldn't make a big deal about it -I would subtly limit their amount of TV or time," advises Heather Turgeon, a psychotherapist and Babble columnist. "If you want to know more details about the story yourself, do it when your kids are not around. You need to be their filter of information."
Between Twitter feeds, Facebook status updates and a constantly swirling news cycle, there's only so much control a parent can have. So the next step is helping kids process what they've already heard, by asking questions and reassuring them of their safety.
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"Parents can acknowledge what happened," says Dr. Shapiro, "but they also need to be saying 'I'm here for you, you're safe,' and letting the child know they're protected."
This would seem intuitive, but Dr. Shapiro says, parents sometimes, nervously or forgetfully, brush off kids' concerns about news events, making fears feel more potent and shameful. In a tragedy like this, kids are bound to have concerns, if not questions. Because the shooting happened at a super-hero movie, in a room dotted with children in costumes, it's likely to feel closer to home than other news stories.
For young very kids, particularly fans of the comic book hero, Dr. Shapiro advises putting the very real incident in the context of the comic book. "If they know about Batman they know there are bad men in the world and that good is ultimately going to win out," she says. "So put it in the frame work of 'this was bad man that did a bad thing but he's been caught and is being punished and won't ever do this again,'" she says. "You need to complete the story for them."
But for some children, the line between fantasy and reality is what's most confusing.
"Kids are both egocentric and fantasy prone," Lee Shapiro, a New York based psychologist, tells Shine. "It's possible that they would imagine what happened was connected to the content of the movie, and connect the 'dark' aspects of this fantasy film with the bad things that happened at the theater."
In this case, clarity is key. "You want to make the distinction very clear, that movies are not real," Lee explains. "What happened in the theater was the consequence of one person deciding to do a terrible thing, not because people went to see this movie."
But what if a child hasn't asked about the incident? Is it safe to assume their teachers or classmates will be talking about it today and should a parent even bring it up?
"Parents should certainly to be attuned to the possibility that their kids have talked about it and notice any changes in behavior, even in posture," advises Francine. "When a child comes home from school parents can ask, 'did anything important happen today?' If a child does want to talk about the incident, they should ask what kinds of feelings the story brings up for them."
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At the same time, parents need to be cautious about letting their own fears trickle down onto their kids. "Kids of all ages are emotional sponges that sense and react to their parents' own anxieties," says Turgeon. "It's important not to assume you know what your child is feeling and instead follow their lead. You may be more troubled by the news than they are, in which case you need to talk to your friends about it outside of their earshot, so they don't take on what your feeling. "
As for the kids who witnessed the horrific event, their recovery will require more than just a parent's reassurance. "It's important those kids have the opportunity for therapy, particularly therapy supported by trauma research," says Francine, who recently authored a book on PTSD called Getting Past Your Past: Take Control of Your Life with Self-Help Techniques from EMDR Therapy. "But with the right treatment kids can recover and in many cases, faster than adults."
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