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When Disturbing Events Touch Children’s Lives

Recently there have been small tastes of a return to normal after such a challenging year with the pandemic.  How sad that the latest sign of a return to normalcy is the occurrence of senseless mass shootings in Atlanta and now, in my own beloved Boulder community.  After the initial shock of seeing national news broadcasting from the streets of one’s hometown, cameras trained on a familiar King Soopers grocery bursting with armed SWAT teams, and the reality of 10 innocent lives lost, as educators and parents (many of us wearing both hats) the questions that commonly rise to the top are, “What do I tell my kids?” or “How do I talk with my children about this?”  When one is reeling with emotion themselves it only complicates the challenging task of talking with our children about violent acts in our world.  And this time it’s further complicated by the fact that we can’t use the usual reassurance that it happened far away from where we live.  We want to protect them from the horror, and yet, they may know something is going on, especially our children living in Boulder.  I remember being a parent of young children and director of the Boulder JCC Preschool in the ’90s when tragedy struck in Colorado at Columbine High School and later, closer to home with Jon Bonet Ramsey’s murder just blocks from my then 1st grader’s school.   These tragedies thrust parents and educators into wrestling with where the boundaries lie between honestly communicating with children and protecting them from the horrors of the world.

How one addresses this is dependent on their age and temperament, and sadly, due to the common occurrence of mass shootings there are many good resources available that break things down by age.  One simple guide by age group comes from parenting consultant, Dr Deborah Gilboa (“Dr G.”), and this one from the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) is also useful.   Children five and under who have not been directly affected do not need to hear any details about what happened.

Ironically, the first thing to do related to talking to children has to do with listening.  The Jewish value of Sh’miat haozen or having a “listening ear” reminds us to actively listen and pay close attention to what children are telling us, not only through their words and questions, but also their behavior and demeanor.  Changes in sleep patterns and irritability can be code for worry or fear.  And for older children who are asking questions, listening to what they know can give you guidance on where to start and just how much information to share.

In addition, here are some basic guidelines with regards to our littlest ones:

  • Young children eight and under should not be viewing or hearing news coverage and even older children should have limited access to news reports. Remember that children are always listening to us, so be mindful of conversations they might overhear regarding the event.
  • Maintain a predictable, normal routine. Routines provide comfort and a sense of balance in the world, for both children and adults.
  • Validate children’s feelings, providing opportunities to express their feelings through creative means such as drawing, painting, play, etc. This is another place to embrace Sh’miat haozen and have a “listening ear,” being attentive to what children might be working out or communicating through their play or artwork.
  • Reading children’s books that address feelings can be therapeutic in and of itself, as well as being an entry point for conversation. Such books can normalize feelings, sending a message that they are not the only one in the world who feels this way. Books also provide an opportunity to identify with someone outside of oneself who is going through a similar experience, making it easier to talk about. Below you’ll find some book suggestions on the topics of: Feelings, When Bad Things Happen in the World, and Mindfulness.
  • Reassure them with a fundamental message of safety, that you are always doing your best to keep them safe as are community helpers. Even with this event happening so close to home, the fact is that the perpetrator has been apprehended and is no longer a threat.
  • Remember to do what brings you joy and peace – a hike in the mountains, bike rides, listening to music, reading books, or simply cooking or playing your favorite card games together.

The Jewish value of Tikkun Olam reminds us that we live in a broken world and the events this week clearly illustrated that fact. Embedded in this value is the message that we each have a responsibility to help repair it. Taking some form of positive action, whether to support impacted families, or at a larger political level, is a way of living and modeling this Jewish value.  In addition, it helps us and our children to recover and regain some sense of control during a time when things have felt so out of our control. One final recommendation…remember to breathe. A few good belly breaths can be the best gift you give yourself every day, especially, these days.

Book Recommendations

Feelings in General

Kachenmeister, Cheryl, On Monday When It Rained

Parr, Todd, The Feelings Book

Seeger, Laura Vaccaro, Walter Was Worried

When Disturbing World Event Touch Children’s Lives

Holmes, M. & S.Mudlaff, A Terrible Thing Happened

Jackson, Ellen, Sometimes Bad Things Happen

Patel, Andrea, On That Day: a book of hope for the children

Mindfulness

Ortiner, Nick & Alison Taylor, My Magic Breath

Silver, Gail, Steps and Stones: An Anh’s Anger Story

Angry Feelings

Bang, Molly, When Sophie Gets Angry – Really, Really Angry

Silver, Gaiol, Anh’s Anger

Fears and Overcoming Them

Bodin-Cohen, Deborah, Nachshon, Who Was Afraid to Swim: A Passover Story                                                               

Buron, Kari Dunn, When My Worries Get Too Big! A Relaxation Book for Children Who Live with Anxiety   

Santat, Dan, After the Fall: How Humpty Dumpty Got Back Up Again

Other Helpful Resources

Helping Children Process Acts of Terrorism from URJ

Talking to Children About Violence: Tips for Parents and Teachers

Age-Related Reactions to Traumatic Events – The National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN)

How to Talk to Kids About Mass Shooting and Other Tough Topics

Helping Youth After Community Trauma – Tips for Educators

How to Talk with Children About Mass Shootings from Center for Reflective Communities

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