How to Handle the Colorado Massacre As A Parent

In the aftermath of the Aurora, Colorado movie theater massacre, we are left in a state of shock and horror as a society and many questions still remain unanswered. Who is Mr. James Holmes and how and why could he do what he did? Beyond the shooter’s background or mindset and the now heated-up debate on gun policies and laws, the tragedy has reverberated across America and into the homes of families, leaving many parents and children anxious and fearful.

As a child psychologist, I have been inundated with numerous questions from many of my patients’ parents this past week. These parents have asked me how to specifically talk to their children about the event, while others are struggling with their own fears. Most recently, a mother of one of my child patients reported to me that she and her husband attempted to see the Dark Knight Rises with her children this past weekend at the Cobb Theater in Leesburg, but ended up leaving after seeing an increased police presence. She stated, “The police and the security dogs scared my kids more than the actual news.” Another parent informed me that, in response to the shootings, she has instituted a much earlier curfew for her teen boys due to her fears regarding their safety and wellbeing in the community after dark.

While I appreciate and understand the heightened parental concern and anxiety in response to the shootings, I think it is important for parents to contain that anxiety and keep things in perspective. What happened in Colorado was certainly tragic, but it was also extraordinary as an event. Instead of anticipating the next horrific event, I encourage parents to be proactive and not reactive; to take control of the situation as best as possible for their and their children’s sake.

I offer the following suggestions to parents.

First, shield your younger children from media reports and news coverage on the massacre. Younger children will not understand the complexity of the situation or bad news that is being reported and their confusion could potentially elicit fear and anxiety. For these reasons, I do not think parents should discuss the shootings with their younger children, as doing so could do more harm than good.

Second, if you do choose to speak to your children about what happened be cognizant of your audience and message. For a younger child, it is important to keep your statements brief and simple. For example, should a preschool age child learn about the shootings, the parent of that child could provide supportive statements only such as, “Yes, something bad happened in Colorado but everything is fine now and you are safe.”

School age children can certainly handle slightly more information and detail on what happened; however, staying black and white on the topic is still best. As parents, you might want to address a few general points that are relevant to what the child might have heard— that the shootings were done by someone who is sick, that the bad guy is now in jail, that tragedies like this are rare, and that they are safe.

Parents of tweens and teens can deal with the topic more openly. You might start by asking your tween or teen what they have heard and how they feel about it. Certainly encourage them to be aware of their surroundings in public settings and reassure them of their safety. You might even consider engaging your curious minded teen on related, larger topics such as, movie theater security and procedures, national gun laws or mental illness. Conversations like this can help to give teens a sense of control or mastery over any anxiety they may be experiencing.

As parents, I recommend monitoring your children’s statements and behaviors over the next few weeks since the impact the shootings or news may not be evident right away. If you do become concerned that your child is developing an exaggerated fear or phobia in response to the event, the news stories or other things they may have heard from their friends, immediately seek the assistance of a trained mental health professional. Addressing anxiety and fear closer in proximity to the upsetting event or trauma, will make it easier to treat.

Remember, as parents one of your jobs is to protect your children from what they cannot handle emotionally while supporting them to be able to handle what they should be able to. This balance is not always easy to achieve, especially during a national tragedy involving murdered children and adults at a Batman movie. I think anxiety and fear is a healthy reaction to what happened, but with good parental attention, care and support, our children will be fine.

[Michael Oberschneider, Psy.D. is the founder and director of Ashburn Psychological and Psychiatric Services located in the Ashburn Shopping Plaza.]