Truth, no politics: Talks with kids follow tragedy

·5 min read

May 26—TRAVERSE CITY — Words are often not enough to convey grief or to comfort another person when we ourselves are afraid of the worst.

On Tuesday, families in Uvalde, Texas experienced most people's worst nightmare: a gunman killed 19 children and two adults at a local elementary school.

So far, in 2022, there have been 27 school shootings in which at least one person was killed or injured, according to data from EducationWeek. Twenty-seven people were killed in these school shootings and 40 were injured (does not include information from the May 24 incident in Uvalde).

There have been 119 school shootings in which at least one person was killed or injured since 2018. In 2021, there were 34.

The shooting in Uvalde comes just 11 days after a shooter killed 10 civilians in a grocery store in Buffalo, New York and 10 days after a shooter opened fire on more than 30 churchgoers in Laguna Woods, California, killing one and injuring five.

At times like these, words of comfort and promises of safety often fail against the backdrop of such profound and pervasive tragedy. For children who have to get up and attend school the next day, the struggle is often in processing the grief from the devastating reality that surrounds them.

"They hear that something happened in a school, they hear that something happened that killed children and injured other children, and they start to worry about their own safety at school," said Elizabeth Carrillo, director of clinical services at the Traverse Bay Area Children's Advocacy Center.

Mental health professionals who work with kids say children can often internalize feelings of fear and anxiety around tragedies like the shooting at Robb Elementary in Uvalde. It's important for adults to explain what happened in simple, fact-based terms and open a channel for kids to express themselves and ask questions.

"It hits everybody at different times," Carrillo said. "If a kid's like, 'I'm fine, I'm not really thinking about it.' Just say, 'If you ever do or if you ever find yourself thinking about it, or you have questions or you have feelings about it, just always know that I'm here and I'm happy to have that conversation with you.'"

Depending on how heavily a child has internalized the situation, they can have changes in eating, sleep and social patterns. Some kids might throw tantrums, become more argumentative or self-isolate. Others may become more talkative than they were before. Talkative kids may become quieter.

"Adults are able to really process the fear and anxieties and anger that this brings up for us, but children don't yet have the cognitive abilities to really process those kinds of things," said Megan Morrissey, a licensed professional counselor and therapist in the behavioral health department with Child and Family Services.

Morrissey said she would expect that a lot of kids, even if they don't verbally express their fears, bring anxiety and dread to school and have persistent intrusive thoughts after school shootings.

Parents or guardians should assume that their children will learn about the shooting and should try to bring it up first and offer straightforward, factual information, said Ann Ronayne, youth services counselor with Child and Family Services.

Ronayne stressed that adults should inform young kids without inserting political opinions and allow their kids' own curiosity to guide the conversation. Talking about gun reform from the start can overwhelm young kids or push them away from feeling that they can talk to you.

"Kids are not thinking in terms of gun control. They're not thinking in terms of politics or who's the president or who's the sheriff," said Ronayne. "Kids are integrating this experience into their brain and, on some level, having to accept that it could happen to them."

With kids in elementary or middle school, it's important to ask them about their feelings, empathize with them, avoid expressing your own fears, help them identify adults they feel comfortable talking to and reassure them that there are certain protections in place to keep them safe, Ronayne said. With high school students, on the other hand, a back-and-forth conversation in which parents express their own fears can be helpful, Ronayne said.

With all kids, it's important to avoid lying or telling them that such a tragedy can't happen to them, Ronayne said.

One of the 34 school shootings in 2021 hit particularly close to home for kids in the Traverse City area. On Nov. 30, a high school student at Oxford High School in Oakland County killed four of his peers — Hana St. Juliana, Tate Myre, Madisyn Baldwin and Justin Shilling.

Following that shooting, a slew of copycat threats at schools in the area instilled fear in the local community of parents, students and educators, although none were determined to be credible.

When the shooting happened at Oxford High School, Morrissey said almost all of her clients spoke to her about it and the copycat threats that followed.

"Pretty much all of my clients knew somebody who had been talked to by the police that week and we're pretty upset about it," Morrissey said. "I wouldn't be surprised if this week I get a lot more of that even though the shooting happens thousands of miles away. We can all picture what it would be like if it happened in our small town."