AFTER ORLANDO — How Can We Help Our Children and Teens?

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Can you name the feelings you experienced and continue to feel in the aftermath of the Orlando massacre? Shock, fear, anger, sadness, grief,
confusion, disbelief, broken-heartedness, compassion are a short list of emotions that I’ve heard friends and colleagues describe over the
past 2 days.

We need to figure out how to help our children process both their understanding and their feelings. It’s not uncommon to want to shelter our children and teens from knowing about horrific events. But they know. They hear people talking. They read the emotions and body language of the people around them. They do hear the news. Having honest conversations with family and loved ones helps greatly.  What are some things to keep in mind as you engage your child or teen in conversations about the Orlando massacre?

Meet your children where they are. Think about your son’s or daughter’s age, personality and development. A pre-school child may need a simple explanation, “A lot of people got hurt. The police and firefighters and lots of other people are all helping.” For elementary school-aged children, some level of information can help calm their worries.  Asking them about what they already know and what they’ve heard can be a good place to start. From their comments, you can determine what they need help understanding in terms of facts and feelings. .A tween or teen, often energized around fairness and justice, may want to talk about what can be done. What can they do? And they may ask, “what are you doing?” or “what can we do as a family?”  Consider what you can do as a family. Taking some action and working together with others can be both healing and helpful for our communities.

Name and validate feelings. Here at the Institute we really value the work of Dr. Alec Miller, a child psychologist with New York’s Montefiore Medical Center/Albert Einstein College of Medicine. In a prior NBC new interview, Dr. Miller shared, “You want to encourage kids to talk about what’s upsetting them about the situation, to get some of the emotion off their chest.”  Once they’ve shared, validate the feelings. These are normal responses to a horrible, scary, sad event. You can share that you are feeling some of those same emotions. If your child is having trouble naming their feelings, you can help by providing some words.  Drs. Dan Siegel and Tina Bryson have suggested “naming it to tame it” as a way to help children calm the big feelings.

Provide reassurance. Children and teens want to know they are safe. Don’t hesitate to assure them of their safety.  Yes, bad things happen. But we are much safer than not.

Keep the dialogue going AND limit exposure to the news. The 24 hour news cycle can make for some intense absorption with suffering. We all need breaks.  Especially children. While our kids may need and want to discuss new developments, information and evolving feelings, it’s important that they are not bombarded with news, especially now that the structure of the school day is absent and we are adjusting to summer schedules.  Unplug. Turn off the TV and the computer. Make sure you and your family are engaged in your normal routine, sharing some meals together, enjoying some physical  and other activities that engage the mind and soothe the spirit.

Practice compassion and inclusion. The Orlando shooting reminds us of the complexities of our diverse world today. Be willing to talk with your children and teens about this. They may have questions about words and concepts like sexual orientation, LGBTQ, pride month, homophobia, religion, guns, ISIS, and more. If you have a child or teen who is questioning their sexual orientation or gender identity, or who identifies as LBGTQ, the shootings will likely have particular significance for them.  Be as present as you can with the feelings and concerns they may share – or their need for space. Let them know you are there if they need or want to talk.

Find positive stories. You may be familiar with this quote from Mister Rogers: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”  Indeed, look for the helpers! There are so many! Some specifics include the hundreds of people waiting in line to give blood, the businesses that provided food and drinks for those waiting in line, the vigils and memorials, and the rainbow of lights around the world.

Get help if needed. Inspired by the wise words of colleague Dr. Catherine Steiner-Adair, psychologist, I often find myself repeating, “Don’t worry alone.”  Thank you, Catherine, for that simple phrase. Such good advice for all of us right now.  If you think you or your child would benefit from talking to a professional, don’t hesitate to reach out. Here are some tips for finding a therapist: 4 Tips for Finding the Right Therapist.