Talking With Children About Orlando


From Alice Mangan, Ph.D., M.S., School Psychologist and Allison Gaines Pell, Head of School

Dear Community,

Last week our newsletter came out quoting Callum on his wisdom that what is hard now will someday, possibly, seem easy. And yet today, in the wake of learning about the events in Orlando has no doubt made many of us question whether this kind of hard will ever yield to something easier. Personally, today has me feeling quite hopeless.

Hopeless because what is called "senseless violence" by so many seems to make sense to some individuals. Hopeless because there are people in Orlando today without loved ones who were here just moments ago and the depth of this sadness is unimaginable. Hopeless because we seem collectively to be deciding over and over to NOT control gun use in this country in a meaningful way.

I believe very much in our collective power to make good from bad when we choose to do so. We have, after all, worked towards progress on so many fronts. I hope for the people of Orlando, and for all of us who see this as an attack on expressions of sexual and gender identity as well as basic human rights, that this tragedy can be a catalyst so that we can turn back towards hope.

We may all be feeling some measure of anxiety and fear.  As the grown-ups in children's lives, we are charged with the very difficult task of managing our own reactions to this massacre, while also being attuned and appropriately responsive to the reactions our children may be having or demonstrating.  I wanted to offer some words of support, along with some resources attached below to guide you during this difficult time.  

We all naturally reach toward our secure base when our safety feels threatened. You may find yourselves doing this since learning of this tragic event.  And your children may likewise be reaching toward you, their teachers and other important adults in their lives.  Some children, particularly older children, may know details about the shooting and want to talk about it.  Others may not want to talk but still may sense the increase of tension, grief and fear that surrounds us all during times such as these.  It is important that we not leave children alone in these experiences, and that our response be rooted in an underlying message of essential safety--as impossible as this is for us to guarantee.

For older children reviewing the "facts" of the event is helpful and clarifying. Grounding the discussion in various "issues" can help children to defend against feeling too overwhelmed or vulnerable.  For example, discussions might center around hate crimes, Islamophobia, the political response to the tragedy, policies on gun control, or important events in LGBTQ history (Stonewall; same-sex marriage; the movement toward equality and justice for Transgender people and their families).  It is also powerful to help children turn their feelings toward action in these moments.  Actively using their minds and voices to respond increases a sense of power and agency while simultaneously warding off overwhelming fear and vulnerability.  Older (and even some younger) children can be particularly motivated to protest against injustice.  

Tread lightly with younger children. If your younger child has not voiced or demonstrated non-verbally any knowledge or upset, you may wish to not share any details.  Remain observant and attuned and if your child seems more anxious, provide containment through your presence, extra physical contact, words of love and reassurance.  

A few points to keep in mind:   

1.  Tune into your child to notice signs they may be feeling signs of distress.  Watch their play, listen to their words, notice dramatic changes in behavior.  

2.  Talk to them in reassuring and containing ways, avoiding detail that you perceive will elevate their anxiety to an unnecessary degree.  Walk a fine line here: validate feelings, while not exacerbating them unnecessarily.

3.  Take breaks from processing the event and set limits about how long you might engage in talking about it.  

4.  Turn off the TV, the news, and reduce the entire family's access to the Internet. Repeated commentary on, descriptions of and visual images from the massacre will be unnecessarily upsetting and triggering.

5.  Take action. Join with others in finding creative and important ways to resist hatred and increase love.  Go to a vigil, sign a petition, write a letter, or go to Pride events the last weekend of June--whether you are a straight ally or a member of the LGBTQ community.  In the wake of trauma, social supports are vital, and for members of marginalized communities who already feel vulnerable, allies are essential.  

6.  If your child asks you a question to which you don't have an immediate response, tell him or her that you need time to think about the question.  Take that time, and then be sure to come back to it when you are prepared.

7.  Be sure to have your own sources of support as you navigate these troubling and tragically recurring events.  

For more advice and thoughts, please visit the Fred Rogers Company website.  We also recommend this article from Common Sense Media about talking with your children about the news.

As the Mayor of Los Angeles said, "in the face of hatred, hold someone tight."


Posted on June 16, 2016 .