Parents should reassure children that the massacre at a midnight showing of “The Dark Knight Rises” in a suburban Colorado movie theater was a rare and random event, and that the adults in their lives always do everything in their power to protect them, child experts say.
Once again — as with the shootings at Columbine High School in 1999, at Virginia Tech in 2007 and at a Tucson shopping center in 2011 — the tragedy has occurred at a venue frequented by children and young adults.
“This, of course, makes everybody fearful,” says Dr. Alan Hilfer, associate director of child and adolescent outpatient psychology at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn. Even President Obama had this fatherly response: "I'm sure many of you who are parents here had the same reaction I did when I heard this news. My daughters go to the movies. What if Malia and Sasha had been at the theatre...?"
But parents need to reaffirm to children -- and themselves -- that this is a “terrible, isolated event by a very disturbed man,” Hilfer says.
“It really is about one troubled person,” agrees Dr. Victor Fornari, director of child and adolescent psychology at Zucker-Hillside Hospital in Glen Oaks and a professor of psychology at Hofstra North Shore-LIJ School of Medicine.
Follow the lead of your child when doling out information. “I don’t think the parents need to introduce this topic if the child hasn’t heard about it,” Fornari says. If a younger child brings it up, parents should try to first clarify what the child already knows and what he’s really asking, Fornari says. You can simply tell them that “a troubled person used guns and killed some people,” he says.
Say, “The good news is the troubled individual who did the shooting has been apprehended, and he can’t hurt any more people.” Tell the child that there’s no reason for him to be afraid, and that movie theaters are “safe places that people have enjoyed for the past 80 years.”
Limit younger children's exposure to repeated news reports on the event.
Teenagers may ask much more pointed questions, Fornari says. Hilfer agrees: “A teenager will be much more sophisticated in their understanding.”
Parents can talk to their children about their opinions on gun control and the whole public debate, Fornari says.
They can discuss with teens how to be alert in a crisis, and teach them to get low to the ground to be less of a target for a shooter or to hide behind something for protection, Hilfer says.
What parents shouldn’t do is hunker down with their kids at home.
“Much like we respond to other tragedies and disasters, we don’t grind to a halt,” Hilfer says. “Kids should continue to do what they normally do. It doesn’t mean anybody has to stay at home hidden behind doors.”