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Following park shooting, experts stress importance of talking to children about traumatic events

Updated: May. 6, 2021 at 3:33 PM EDT
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WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - It is important for parents to talk to children about their feelings after they experience a frightening incident like the gunfire that rang out Wednesday night at Long Leaf Park in Wilmington.

Cristen Williams, a licensed social worker and Director of School-Based Services at Coastal Horizons Center, says everyone will have a different response to these events, and some children might handle the situation better than others.

“When kids experience a scary event, for some it may turn into something that affects them long-term, and that’s when we start looking at things like a PTSD, or post-traumatic stress diagnosis,” Williams said. “We also know that some kids are going to deal with it, and with the right support and can get over it, for the lack of a better term, fairly quickly, knowing that they are safe, they are loved, they are cared for, that their feelings are valid.”

It is important for parents to have a good handle on their emotions before starting the conversations with children. Williams says children look to trusted adults to regulate their emotions, so when adults have processed how they feel, they can better help children do the same.

“Having those conversations and letting kids and students know that maybe we don’t have all the answers, maybe we don’t know why it happened, maybe we don’t know who it was or what the issue was that caused the gun violence,” Williams added. “But being able to say to them ‘Lets figure this out together. This is a safe space to talk about those things that are scary. It was scary for me too!’, without getting too much into their own emotion, but validating the kids are not alone in those feelings are super important.”

Williams shared that is also appropriate for adults to be pro-active in asking children how they feel, instead of waiting for them to broach the topic.

“We often forget that kids are not mini-adults, and so we have to really sometimes be pro-active in making sure we are asking the question and giving the space for them to say they are not okay,” she said.

Therapist Shelley Chambers of Potentials shared her suggestions of how adults can address the incidents with children. They include:

  • To talk about it and not keep feelings inside. Find times when the child is likely to talk, such as in the car or on a walk. Listen to the child’s perspective before jumping in.. Validate your child’s feelings and offer any new information they may not have to correct any misperceptions. For instance, remind them that nobody was shot if they think someone died.
  • To remember that there were helpers, the police, on the scene quickly to make sure everyone was safe.
  • To think about all the other times they went to the park and it was a peaceful, safe place. That this was a very unusual and rare thing to happen. A fight with guns should not have happened there or anywhere.
  • For parents to talk with other adults about their experience, thoughts and feelings so that when they talk with their children they can be calm and hopeful.
  • Be truthful, but do not overwhelm your child with too much information that they may not be able to handle. Consider what is developmentally appropriate.
  • Take breaks from the news because constant exposure to scary information may increase your child’s fear.
  • Make time for family time such as a family game night to take everyone’s mind off the scary situation.
  • Watch for any changes in mood and/or behavior as this might suggest that your child isn’t coping well with witnessing the shooting or hearing about it. If you notice a change, check in with your child and see what has been on their mind. Offer opportunities to talk about it.
  • Normalize your child’s reaction and let them know that they are not alone.
  • If the child’s fears persist, remember it is okay to reach out to a professional for extra guidance.

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