I am struggling to find words. There are no words. I’m writing this the morning after the mass shooting at a King Soopers in Boulder, Colorado… my neighborhood grocery store. As a school psychologist, I’ve been through this before — helping parents communicate with kids after terror events across the country. But this is different. One of our teachers was walking her dog and saw the shooting start. My husband planned to pick up milk and eggs at the store after an appointment, and if the shooting had been an hour later or his appointment an hour earlier, he would have been there. Unfortunately, we know by now how to talk (or not talk) to kids about distant tragedies. But how do we even begin to help kids make sense of tragedies that occur on our doorsteps?
I lay awake last night contemplating what to say, what to do. Honestly, I am at a loss. My heart goes to our students. It feels like it could have been any of us, any of them. How do we talk to children about what happened in our community yesterday? I don’t have the answers, but I do have some thoughts:
1) There is no “right answer.” You and I will both do our best to help our children feel safe and loved. Some of our children will learn about the tragedy from family, friends, social media, or by overhearing conversations. There is no right answer. We are all in this together doing the best that we can.
2) In general, I believe in being honest with children.
3) However, this type of violence feels random and out of control to me and for kids this can be absolutely overwhelming. For that reason, I would TRY to not share the information with K-8 kids.
4) That being said, my own kids learned about what happened and I am sure I am not alone. That is ok.
5) Children deserve to feel safe. In large part, it is parents and the other adults in their lives that provide this feeling. So what can we do when WE don’t feel safe? When WE are not okay? Yesterday I needed to spend time alone crying in a closet so I could confidently give my children a sense of calm. Again, it’s important to be in touch with and to express your emotions, but you may have to hold yourself together when speaking with your kids to avoid creating unneeded fear.
6) Our world is a wonderful, beautiful place and I want all our children to feel empowered to make it even better.
7) If your children are like mine and know all or a bit about what happened, do your best to portray calm, security and TRY to limit exposure. Answer questions directly and try to convey a sense that they are safe.
8) In the best interest of your mental health and your children’s mental health TRY to find a bit of light in the aftermath of tragedy and in the days ahead.
9) If you have decided not to tell your children, know that they can hear your emotions as loud as your words. In other words, take care of yourself. Do what YOU need to do in order to be okay. This is not just in your best interest but it is also best for your family.
10) My heart is broken and I don’t know what to do to make that better. I am going to try to start to mend it a bit today by honoring the people who were exposed to so much terror by doing at least 10 acts of extreme kindness. I feel a need to do something to make this amazing world a little better today. I would love for you to join me and PLEASE share with me what you did so I can share your acts of love with others.
Dr. Pikiewicz earned her PhD in Clinical Psychology at Pacifica Graduate Institute in Carpinteria, CA. She completed pre-doctoral training at the Nan Tolbert Nurturing Center in Ojai, CA, and her post-doctoral internship at the Boulder Institute for Psychotherapy and Research. At both sites, Dr. Pikiewicz worked with a range of adult, adolescent and child clients in individual, couple, family and group settings. She also holds a B.S. in environmental science from Allegheny College and a teaching credential from Western Washington University.