Bakersfield mental health professionals advised parents to reassure their children that they are loved and safe when talking to them about the unthinkable, a massive school shooting that left children and adults, including the gunman, dead Friday.
While health workers advised parents to re-enforce a sense of safety for their children as news of the shooting at a Connecticut elementary school spread Friday morning, one therapist acknowledged there really isn't anything a parent could do to protect their children from such a terrible event.
"There's nothing you can do, that's the awful part," said Linda Warnick, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Bakersfield. "There is nothing you can do to prevent this nonsense."
Nevertheless, a child's sense of security is critical and parents can shore that up in the wake of a tragic event. Before parents comfort their children, they need to make sure their own fears are in check so that they don't project their anxieties onto their kids, said Corey Gonzales, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist.
"Safety and security is one of the most important things for children to be able to develop," Gonzales said. "Just let them know that you are there for them and you care about their security and safety."
Jeffrey Cheney, a marriage and family therapist, recommended parents limit the exposure their children have to media reports of the shooting because young kids can't discern if an event happened next door or across the country. Parents should also be watchful of what they say to other adults about the shooting when children are within earshot.
Younger children, such as preschool- and kindergarten-aged kids, may not have heard about the shooting and it's not necessary to bring it up to them, Cheney said.
"They may feel directly threatened by what we are talking about as opposed to a child that is older and has much more sophisticated reasoning," he said.
For older children, Cheney said the shooting and the child's feelings should be acknowledged and parents should assure them that police and other people are in place to keep them safe.
"Let them know that this was something that was isolated, it does happen from time to time," Cheney said. "Let them know you love them and that you are always going to keep them safe."
Gonzales suggested parents find out what their kids know so far and then help them process the information, addressing their concerns and worries along the way.
"Ask them, 'What does it bring up for you? What are your fears? What can mommy and daddy do to make you feel safer?"' Gonzales said.
Children who are disturbed by the shooting may revert back to earlier behaviors, such as sleeplessness, disrupted eating habits or bed wetting, Cheney said. If the behavior persists, Gonzales recommended parents consult a mental health professional.
Parents can share details of a safety plan if their child wants to, Gonzales said, but he cautioned that moms and dads shouldn't automatically launch into that conversation. Teachers and school administrators in turn need to be ready to reassure parents of their policies after the shooting, Cheney said.
However, Warnick said children may be more scared by talking about what to do in a crisis like the shooting, when in reality small children couldn't defend themselves.
"There isn't anything parents can do, but don't forget that kids think that we're God. They think that we can control their fate," she said. "The parent can say to the child that they will keep them as safe as they can, that they absolutely adore them. ... That they will do everything in their power to protect them and not to worry."