In the wake of Tuesday’s subway shooting in Sunset Park, many New York City parents were left wondering how to talk to their children about what happened. Traumatic events can be especially hard for young people, whose brains and understanding of the world are still developing.
Gothamist collected audience questions from parents who are trying to make sense of their own emotions about the crisis while also fielding concerns from their kids. WNYC host Sean Carlson then posed those queries to Dr. Alison Holman, a professor at the University of California, Irvine’s Sue and Bill Gross School of Nursing. She’s spent her career studying how traumatic events affect people differently depending on their life experiences and behavior.
Holman explained why it’s important for parents to address the event, rather than to downplay or ignore it, unless a child raises the issue. She offered different conversational tips based on the age of the child and advice for parents seeking ways to cope.
The conversation is available below. It has been lightly edited for clarity.
Sean Carson: Dr. Holman, an audience member named Fred Lassen said his second-grader had to shelter in place, but that his kid wasn’t told the reason why. Should he even bring it up at all? Why is it important to raise this conversation about such a scary topic with a kid?
Alison Holman: There are several important factors to consider when you're trying to help a kid deal with these kinds of things.
One of them is that it’s best for the primary caregiver to be the person to inform the child. And when doing so, it's really important that the caregiver project confidence and be a role model for the child to help their ability to regulate their emotions.
It's unfortunate that the child had to shelter in place without knowing anything about it. That creates a lot of uncertainty and ambiguity that I think would not be good for a person of any age, but in particular for a child who feels that they are relying on the adults around them to keep them safe.
A primary caregiver should also try to place it in a broader context as well. The media shows things, and it seems like those things may be more frequent than they actually are. The true risk for you is very low. Reassure them in this way, and tell them that you're going to do everything you can to keep them safe.
Finally, the other thing I would recommend is that parents don't let their kids get engaged with any “doomscrolling” on social media. It's important not to let people overdo the media because that's really bad for your anxiety and for stress symptoms.
Yeah, it's a lesson for us. Another one of our audience members, Emily Brown of Brooklyn, said that when they spoke to their 7-year-old and 9-year-old about the attack yesterday, they framed the shooter as being “a jerk,” rather than “a guy on the loose,” to reduce the fear factor.
What do you think about that? What are some other strategies for talking to kids about scary subjects?
It's probably good not to say that the person is still on the loose because that would probably raise somebody's anxiety. How you want to describe the person is another question. I'm not sure if there's any specific research that tells us what the best way is to talk about the shooter per se.
Find ways to help the kids see the positive that's been done after the bad event.
I would say focus on helping your child develop a sense of security that you're there. That you're, as I mentioned before, confident in your ability to take care of them. Give them a way to positively reframe situations by saying things like, “The police are working hard to get this wrapped up,” and, “The people who are hurt are all safe and they're being taken care of.”
Find ways to help the kids see the positive that's been done after the bad event so that they can actually feel like, “Yeah, okay. This is being taken care of.”
It sounds like so much of this is dependent on parents regulating their own emotions and how important it is. How do parents do that?
They find their own places and ways for themselves to get the support they need. Parents should rely on each other to provide support. They can go to their friends or their own adult family members.
It's very important for parents to manage their distress. In our research on 9/11, we found that a parent's distress or a parent’s experience in the aftermath was associated with greater post-traumatic stress symptoms and distress in the adolescents, in their lives and in their families.
This advice doesn't mean don't talk about your feelings. But if you're talking about your feelings, do it in a way that shows that you are able to manage your emotions. Don’t get freaked out.
How should parents calibrate how they talk about this situation to kids depending on a child’s age? I'm sure there's a different way to talk about this with a younger kid than, say, a teenager.
Because children have different levels of cognitive development, their ability to manage the information is going to differ across age groups. And the groups that show the greatest sort of distress in the aftermath of these kinds of events tend to be older — tweens and teens.
Again, that's why it's very important to make sure that they understand to stay off too much media. I'm sorry to say this to somebody who works in the media.
No, it’s understandable.
And with the younger children, you don't have to go into too much explanation of the details. Just provide them with that basic sense of security and confidence. And again, I really want to emphasize the importance of putting the whole thing in context because when we see things in the media, we start to think these incidents are more frequent than they actually are.
The true risk of being exposed to such a thing is very, very, very, very small.
I'm sure there are many parents out there who are really worried about the emotional impact yesterday's attack is having on their kids. And honestly, that could go for any number of things that have happened in the past few years.
Are there any signs and symptoms that parents should be looking out for in their kids?
Absolutely. Great question. There are many different signs that you can see in a child.
If you see a child who appears to be more sad than usual or anxious, lonely, withdrawing, or on the other hand, maybe you're seeing a little bit more aggressiveness, irritability or hyperactivity in ways that you haven't seen before.
Read More: Brooklyn schools offering emotional support to students after Tuesday's subway shooting in Sunset Park
Alternatively, sometimes kids manifest their anxieties and their emotional states in the form of physical complaints. So they might have headaches, more headaches than usual or a tummy ache.
Poor sleep is another thing. Those are very common things that we would see in children when they're experiencing some stress. If you're seeing the symptoms, try to talk to your kids about what's going on.
It would also be good for parents at this point to let their children know that the authorities have arrested somebody who is a suspect in the case, and that officials believe that the situation has returned back to normal in the subway.
May we talk about the general state of mental health of kids? Because all of this is happening against a backdrop of a mental health crisis for children.
So given everything that is going on in the world and all of the anxiety that we're feeling, what can we do to help kids feel more secure in this moment?
That’s a really good point you're making. The world is a very challenging place right now for a lot of people. The pandemic did not help at all because the pandemic made everybody, to a certain degree, put a stop to their everyday lives and put the future into question.
And there still remains tremendous uncertainty. From my perspective, the people who've been mentally harmed the most are some of the younger people in our society.
That’s because when you have your future taken away, called into question or rendered uncertain, that actually makes a lot of people go, “Wow, what's next?” And that sensation is really bad for people.
Psychological research has shown for many decades that having a sense of a future that you're moving into is very critical for mental health. It's very important for us to help people build or rebuild that sense of moving into their future and creating a future, especially our children
If your child is in severe mental distress as a result of the shooting, New York City Health Department can help. Text ‘WELL’ to 65173 or call 1-888-NYC-WELL. That’s 1-888-692-9355.