What parents can say to their children about school shootings

The Uvalde massacre is leading to tough questions all over again about how adults should talk to children about these shootings. Dr. Melissa Brymer, director of terrorism and disaster programs at the UCLA-Duke University National Center for Child Traumatic Stress, joins William Brangham to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The Uvalde school massacre is leading to tough questions all over again about how adults should talk with children about these shootings.

    William Brangham has our own conversation on this.

  • William Brangham:

    Judy, parents and families around the country are struggling with that very issue today, trying to figure out the right balance of reassurance, information and honesty.

    Research has shown that, even if they didn't witness a terrifying event, young people can still suffer knowing that it happened or hearing about it.

    Dr. Melissa Brymer helps parents deal with these concerns. She's the director of terrorism and disaster programs at the UCLA/Duke University National Center for Child Traumatic Stress.

    DR. Brymer, very good to have you on the "NewsHour."

    This is something that so many parents are struggling with. A national tragedy like this occurs. We know our kids are going to hear about this in some way, and we wonder, how do we talk to them about it?

    Can we start with the youngest kids? How do we approach this with them? What should we be doing?

    Dr. Melissa Brymer, UCLA/Duke University National Center for Child Traumatic Stress: Absolutely.

    But let's take a step back. And, as adults, we need to take care of ourselves first. We need to have a moment, maybe talk to a friend or a loved one about what this event has meant to us. Then we can have that conversation with our kids. It's important to be honest, that we initiate the conversation.

    For those young kids, we're going to have to have several small conversations that are short. And, most importantly, they're going to want to know that they're safe, that you're safe, that their family is safe, and providing them extra love and attention during this time, when they might be feeling a little bit uneased.

  • William Brangham:

    Can you help us understand, how do kids process?

    Is it accurate that hearing about these things or learning about these things can, in and of themselves, cause trauma for kids?

  • Dr. Melissa Brymer:

    It can cause additional anxiety.

    But some of our kids, if they have had traumas where they might have had recent losses because of the pandemic or have experienced violence before, it could be a reminder about what they have experienced in the past, and that could cause a re-experiencing of their trauma.

    So it's important that we provide these kids the support that they need to help to heal.

  • William Brangham:

    Let's talk a little bit about older kids, late middle school, high school.

    Again, do we assume that they have heard about this, seen it online, and then we initiate the conversation? Or do we wait for them to come to us?

  • Dr. Melissa Brymer:

    I always assume that they're going to find out, whether it's through texting or through social media.

    Most kids will wait for us to start the conversation. And so we need to initiate it. We need to be truthful about the conversation. And we might be having to discuss about what our family values are or how this has impacted us and sometimes have those societal discussions about what the situation has meant, and how maybe we can help to support change.

  • William Brangham:

    I want to ask about something. This is something I have struggled with in my own family, which is older teenagers, who know a great deal about the world, and they look at these types of events, gun violence, or climate change, or racial injustice, and they have a sense of pessimism because, in their lifetimes, things have really not moved.

    How do you wrestle with that, to be honest with them about the shape of the world as it is, and yet not contribute to their despair?

  • Dr. Melissa Brymer:

    You have to acknowledge how painful it is that this happened again. We can't sugarcoat that.

    But, at the second time, I would challenge our teens, what are they going to do this summer or next year to maybe be that change? So can they initiate something at school? Can they think about, at school, is there somebody who doesn't have a lot of friends, or who just moved to the neighborhood, or their family members are in the military, and that we reach out?

    There are things that all of us can be doing. So helping to have our teens get anchored into those things that can be done, that can actually make a difference.

  • William Brangham:

    I want to touch back on something you mentioned before, which is the pandemic.

    I mean, kids have already been under a lot of stress from the isolation and school closures. And we lost a million Americans. That's many millions of families and children that have lost a loved one. This is a compounding issue, right? These add up onto each other.

  • Dr. Melissa Brymer:

    Well, we know that so many kids have lost a primary or secondary caregiver.

    So, as they're seeing the news of how many have died in this incident, they're also thinking about their recent losses. So we need to make sure that they're getting support for their own loss of a loved one, and giving them that comfort. And if they are struggling with their grief, there are so many resources out there to support youth who might need additional levels of support.

  • William Brangham:

    How does a parent or a grandparent or an aunt or an uncle or a caregiver know when a kid has moved from just being upset and distressed about events to something more serious?

    Like, how do you know when you need to pull the lever for more professional help?

  • Dr. Melissa Brymer:

    Well, I say, has there been a change in the functioning?

    Are they stepping away from doing those things that they enjoy? Are they retreating from spending time with their friends or with their loved — with their family members? Do we see a change in academics? And we can ask our kids, do you feel like this has been too much and you need to talk to someone right now?

    School guidance counselors, a pediatrician — 211, for example, is available in most communities that can show what kind of resources are in your community, so that child can get help.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Dr. Melissa Brymer, thank you very much for helping us wade through all of this.

  • Dr. Melissa Brymer:

    Thank you so much.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So important not to rush on after this terrible event in Texas, to take the time to have these conversations and to be there for each other.

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