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How to talk to children about violence, safety after mass shootings; Lancaster County experts weigh in

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Even as a licensed psychologist, Dr. Amanda Katchur finds it difficult to have conversations with her family about violence and safety.

“All of us parents want to think that we can protect our children from everything,” said Katchur, whose children are ages 4 and 1.

But in light of mass shootings that left 31 dead in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, over the weekend, Katchur said parents should think about how to address the events with children.

Even young children are exposed to an abundance of information, said Katchur, a psychologist at Community Services Group and a support group coordinator at Mental Health America of Lancaster County.

“It’s better for them to hear about it from a safe adult who can give accurate information than from kids on the playground,” she said.

Katchur and other experts in family and children health in Lancaster County shared advice for parents trying to do just that.

Vinitha Moopen

Dr. Vinitha Moopen is a pediatrician at WellSpan Family & Pediatric Medicine in Rothsville


Take care of yourself first

The first step is for parents to take care of themselves, said Dr. Vinitha Moopen, a pediatrician at WellSpan Family & Pediatric Medicine in Rothsville.

“Kids can feel when you’re anxious or angry. They’re more likely to be upset by your emotions than your words,” Moopen said.

Dr. Perry Hazeltine, a psychologist and on staff of TeenHope through Samaritan Counseling Center, said adults should look out for their own compassion fatigue.

“For us as adults, hearing these two events on the same day makes it striking. There’s another way in which these shootings are routine,” Hazeltine said.

Empathy is important, he said. Feeling overwhelmed can be make it more difficult to be aware of the emotions children are feeling.


Have an age-appropriate approach

With younger children, it can be more difficult to get a sense of what they’ve been exposed to, Hazeltine said.

If a child is acting more cranky, quiet, withdrawn or fearful, that may be a representation of a greater fear, he said.

Older children are more likely to hear about current events. It’s more appropriate for them to have a say about safety in schools and gun safety, Hazeltine said.

Perry Hazeltine

Dr. Perry Hazeltine is a psychologist in Lancaster and the coordinator of TeenHope at Samaritan Counseling Center.

“Parents know their individual kids. They know the child that might need to be invited to speak versus the other that’s going to say anything on their mind,” he said.


Don’t avoid the hard conversations

“A lot of parents will say, ‘Should I be talking about this?’ The answer is ‘yes,’” Katchur said. “The most important piece is to talk about it in an age appropriate way.”

It’s OK to check in, she said. Most kids are hearing about major news events somewhere, whether from friends, social media or another source.

“To not talk about it makes it even worse,” said Moopen. “It makes it something that is too horrible even to speak of.”

Abby Keiser, director of Family Life Services at COBYS Family Services, said parents and guardians should not strive to take all anxiety from their kids, said Keiser.

Ask children to be up front about scary things they are hearing and then fact check the information, she said.

“Talking about our fears, our worries is very important starting at a young age,” Keiser said.


Be realistic and reassuring

“When something like this happens, the bottom line is always, ‘Am I safe?’” said Katchur.

One way to address that is to go over what safety means for a family. Some children might want a detailed, written out plan. Others might prefer a conversation, she said.

Keiser recommended letting children take charge by identifying people they can go to at school, church and in the community “so they have a plan of action if they get worried or scared or fearful.”

Hazeltine said to be realistic and truthful when talking with children about an event like a mass shooting.

“It is a terrible thing, but it is not likely to happen to us or you or anyone you know,” Hazeltine said.

Moopen, who has a 15-year-old son and an 11-year-old daughter, said she has open conversations with her children about safety while at home and elsewhere.

“Reassurance is especially important in this day and age,” she said. “Keep sharing that they are going to be safe with you.”