Helping Children Cope With News Of A Mass Shooting
On the morning of Friday August 24, 2012, gunfire erupted near the Empire State Building.  It sent hundreds of people scrambling for safety.  In the end a gunman was killed by the police and several bystanders were wounded. 

Much of the ordeal was recorded as it took place.  This included graphic images of the police shooting the gunman, of wounded bystanders, and even of the gunman dying on the sidewalk.  In this time of instantaneous communication, these images were disseminated through social media and on TV.  Throughout the morning audiences could watch live coverage as it unfolded and, in fact, most of the local stations preempted regular programming and broadcast the events for several hours.

People who were on the scene described the harrowing events as “unreal.”  Many said they felt as though they were watching a movie.  It is not surprising that it would seem that way.  This incident was so far out of the realm of normal experience that it was not immediately comprehended.  How do you make sense of being thrust into what for all intents and purposes amounted to a war zone?  Gun shots, crowds running in all directions, law enforcement firing weapons.  For some, this experience may result in stress related symptoms. 

Typical signs of stress include sleep problems such as difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, and/or getting up too early.  For some, stress can lead to eating problems.  In this case, I would also pay attention clinginess, fear of leaving the house and avoidance of public places.  Some people become hyper alert and are easily startled and jumpy.  At times, people do not assign these changes in outlook and behavior to stress.  It can be helpful to point out the potential connection.  A greater awareness of the signs of stress and trauma can aid in reducing the symptoms and restoring mental health. 

How should parents explain this incident to their children?  For starters, if it is possible, whenever there is news of a tragedy children’s exposure to media should be curtailed.  It is not a good idea for kids to see and hear ghastly details about murders, rapes, and horrific disasters. 

In this instance, I advise that parents point out to their children that the police got the killer so he no longer poses a threat.  It is reassuring for children to know he can’t hurt them.

Let children know that the location, in this case the Empire State Building area, was coincidental.  In other words, it happened there because the gunman walked there after committing murder somewhere else.  It was not an attack on a major landmark. 

In this connection, we need to remind ourselves and our children that it was not a terrorist attack.  This was a highly defined act of violence; i.e., the gunman killed a former co-worker due to a long standing personal dispute.  Otherwise, they will feel they are in constant danger of random acts of violence all the time. 

Children (and adults for that matter) should be assured that the police were on the scene immediately and that New York City is a safe place, relatively speaking.  Millions of people visit the vicinity of the Empire State Building each year and only rarely does this sort of dreadful thing occur. 

This could also be a good time to talk with children about anger, frustration, and aggression.  Children need to learn emotional control and how to tolerate unpleasant emotions.  Clearly the gunman in this latest tragedy lacked the resources to do so.  Also, since it is very much in the news, parents should have conversations about gun violence, gun ownership, and gun safety.