As Americans watch the disturbing story unfold of the gunman who shot at least 12 people dead in Aurora, Colorado last week, Newport resident Susan Erstling, PhD, head of the Family Service of Rhode Island’s Trauma and Loss Center, said parents should monitor the psychological impact the incident has on children.
Erstling pointed out that with social media, parents no longer have the option to decide if they would like to tell their children about these types of incidents.
“They probably knew before you did,” she reminds parents. She said social media also makes the world a smaller place for the younger generation, which makes these incidents seem very close to home.
“It doesn’t matter it is far away," said Erstling. “Media is so interconnected. It could have happened in Newport, in the Jane Pickens Theater,” she said.
She said if possible, limit the amount of media children are exposed to over the next couple of weeks. She said with continued media coverage, younger children might think the tragedy is happening repeatedly.
“Kids interpret from their own lenses,” she explained.
Erstling said it is normal for both adults and children to feel a loss of control and safety after a random act of violence, even if not directly impacted. She said it is important to do whatever it takes to establish and regain a sense of normality.
For example, some children might be fearful if parents go to the movies. She suggested in that case, families should watch movies at home together until children feel secure again. “Even if it seems irrational,” she said.
Children might ask why this happened. Erstling said unlike disease or natural disaster that are unavoidable circumstances, both children and adults may struggle to understand why these people were killed, said Erstling.
She encourages parents to explain that while most people in the world are good, there are a small minority with serious problems. Those problems caused this person to do a terrible thing. Tell your child that police arrested the shooter and he is no longer threat to the public, she said.
Remind children of the adults in their lives who are there to take care of them — such as parents, neighbors and teachers.
“Those are important reassurances for children,” she stressed.
Erstling said except for those directly involved, fears and anxieties should diminish after about 30 days. If a child has experienced a death of a loved one or a previous traumatic experience, it might take longer.
Children learn coping skills from parents, which is why Erstling said this incident should be a learning opportunity for parents to teach children to put these experiences into perspective.
“Life is not all good, but people are resilient,” said Erstling. “We can’t protect children forever, but we can teach how to deal with bad experiences.”