In the wake of the at the screening of The Dark Knight Rises screening in Aurora, Colo., parents should encourage their children to express their feelings and limit their media exposure to the tragedy, say experts from Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.
A Traumatic Event for Everyone
“This is a traumatic event for everyone–a tragic occurrence around a summer blockbuster movie,” says Bradley Hudson, MD, clinical psychologist and director of Community Mental Health at the USC University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities, a partnership with the Division of General Pediatrics at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.
While it is normal for people to be affected by an event like this, most children and adults cope well with their feelings and may not be permanently impacted, says Karen Rogers, PhD, psychologist and program area leader for Project Heal, a comprehensive therapeutic service for children exposed to trauma and their families that is a part of the Audrey Hepburn CARES Program at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. “However, there are measures parents can take to lessen the effect on their children,” she says.
Control the Messenger
“If your young child is a preschooler or younger and hearing the news again and again, he may not realize this is a singular event. He may think the event is repeating. It’s important to emphasize that the event is over,” says Hudson. Rogers observes that many families leave their TVs and radios on all day. “The exposure can be confusing, so turn off the television,” she says. Adds Hudson: “You also don’t want your older children being immersed in it. To the extent possible, monitor their exposure. If it’s on TV, participate with them and reassure them that they are safe.”
Susan K. Gorry, lead child life Specialist, Child Life Program at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, says not every child needs to know what’s going on. “If your child hasn’t heard about the tragedy in Colorado, we don’t suggest starting the conversation. But you never know when your child might hear about it from another child or family. Parents have a crucial your role in helping their children express what they think or feel about what they saw.”
Don’t Underestimate the Impact
How does a parent raise the subject? Hudson suggests that to break the ice with older children, “ask them what their friends are saying before asking them what they’re feeling. They may be too sensitive to express their own feelings.” Adds Gorry: “If your child has heard about the tragedy, it is important for you not to ignore it or pretend that they haven’t heard about it. Encourage your child to ask questions so that you can fill in important details. You don’t need to provide them with every single detail but, for children, the factual questions may be what they ask about first. Once they have asked about the details, then they will be more likely to be ready to talk about their feelings.”
Put it in Perspective
Rogers says parents can play a vital role in calming their children’s fears by stressing that there are bad people in the world, but these types of things don’t happen very often. “Let them know we are safe here and there are many adults who are working hard to make sure they are safe,” she says.
Watch Children with Previous Exposure to Trauma
Particular attention should be paid to children who have experienced previous trauma, Rogers says. “They could cope by using play they had long since outgrown or suddenly lose skills,” she says. “They could re-experience their past trauma or this trauma by playing it over again in their minds. They can talk a lot about it or experience nightmares, avoidance, numbing feelings or a reduced range of emotions. It’s not unlike a soldier who has been traumatized by war.”
Mourn the Loss
Hudson feels children should be encouraged to mourn the loss of life that occurred at the screening. “Maybe out of respect, you don’t go see the movie this week to honor those whose lives were lost or who were wounded. You write something, send a card or letter or post something on your Facebook page,” he says. “Encourage children to develop sensitivity to the tragedy.”
Every Feeling is OK
Gorry says parents should be aware that a variety of feelings could surface in their child. “After hearing about a tragedy like this, some kids may be sad for all the people who got hurt,” she says. “Other kids might respond by saying that they are really happy because they saw someone in the news that looked like they were alive and doing fine. Or, your child might say that they are happy because they were not hurt or no one in their family was hurt. Just remember that, no matter what feeling your child has, that every feeling is appropriate at the time it is being felt. The best thing you can do as a parent is to acknowledge that your child’s feelings are OK.”
Rogers urges parents seek professional assistance for their children if feelings of anxiety persist beyond a couple of weeks. “If your child seems more tightly wound – having difficulty sleeping and concentrating or experiencing extreme emotions, talk to your pediatrician, or a counselor. Seek extra support. There is effective therapy for trauma and it is helpful.”
About Children’s Hospital Los Angeles
Children's Hospital Los Angeles has been named the best children’s hospital in California and among the top five in the nation for clinical excellence with its selection to the prestigious U.S. News & World Report Honor Roll. Children’s Hospital is home to The Saban Research Institute, one of the largest and most productive pediatric research facilities in the United States. Children’s Hospital is also one of America's premier teaching hospitals through its affiliation since 1932 with the Keck School of Medicine of the University of Southern California.