How to Explain Devastating Charleston Shooting to Kids

·Senior Editor
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Police put up blockades near the crime scene in Charleston, SC. (Photo: David Goldman/AP Images)

When tragic news — like that of the church shootings in Charleston, SC  — overtakes media outlets, a parent’s instinct is often to shield kids from the facts, especially when there’s a hate-based component. But experts advise tamping down panic by focusing on what’s most important to children: their own sense of security in the world.

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“Death, hate, violence, and racism are elevated concepts that require a developed cognitive capacity,” Dr. Paul Hokemeyer, a family therapist and certified trauma expert, tells Yahoo Parenting. “In this regard, children younger than 12 don’t have the capacity to understand them. What children of all ages do have the capacity to understand — and are physically wired to perceive — is how safe they are in the world.”

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Hearing the facts as they unfold in the Charleston church siege — that a lone gunman (who was arrested on Thursday) acted out of alleged racially motivated hate, that it took place in a house of worship, that among the dead was father-of-two Sen. Clementa Pinckney — is hard enough for adults to comprehend, let alone kids. So it’s important to filter the details in age-appropriate ways, says psychotherapist Amy Morin, noting, “Giving children more information than they can handle will only confuse them and frighten them.”

First and foremost, Morin tells Yahoo Parenting, “It’s important to shield children, especially young children, from news that could cause them unnecessary harm.” So if they’re not likely to hear about the tragedy on their own, there’s no need to enlighten them. “If however, it’s a major event and your child is likely to hear the information from peers, or overhear it from the continual media buzz, it’s best for you to be the one to share the information so you can offer facts and answer questions.” And that’s where it can take a tricky turn, Morin acknowledges.

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Photo: David Goldman/AP Images

“When explaining a hate crime to young children,” she says, “discuss how some people don’t like other people based on how they look or what they believe. Talk about how there are a few people in the world who treat others unkindly because of those things.” Then be sure to give kids time to digest what they’ve learned, and let them know it’s okay to come back with any questions they may think of.

“Children sometimes need extra time to process information and it may take days, or even weeks, for them to develop questions,” Morin, author of 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do, advises. “If you aren’t sure how to answer a question, it’s okay to say, ‘I’ll have to think about that and get back to you.’ Just make sure you get back to your child with an answer after you’ve thought about it.”

Parents, she adds, are often wary when it comes to discussing discrimination because they fear saying the wrong thing. But making it an ongoing dialogue with your children is key. “Explain how views on discrimination have changed over the years,” Morin suggests. “Read books about diversity and talk to your child about influential leaders who paved the way for equality. Make it clear that not everyone agrees with people being treated equally and describe the problems that disagreement can create.”

Hokemeyer suggests framing ideas of racism and hate in simple, personal terms that kids can relate to. “Ask them of a time when they were overwhelmed with anger and fear,” he says, “and give them an example if they have a hard time articulating it. ‘Remember when your brother knocked over your Lego castle?’ Once they get in touch with that experience, expand upon it to empower them. ‘Well, those emotions can overwhelm us and make us do bad things. That’s why it was so great that you were able to calm yourself down and rebuild the castle to make it even stronger and more beautiful…Some people don’t have those skills that you have and get into a lot of trouble. These people let hate and anger overwhelm them. It makes me proud that you do have the capacity to manage your anger.’”

But the bottom line, he says, is reminding your kid that you’ve got her back. “When these tragic and terrifying events occur, it’s important to let your children know they are loved and are safe,” Hokemeyer stresses. “Hug them, and manage your own sadness and anxiety around them rather then try to explain elevated concepts that even adults don’t fully understand.”

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