How To Talk To Your Children About The Las Vegas Tragedy

I was in fourth grade when the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks occurred. Our entire class, a rambunctious group of 11-year-olds, filed into a single meeting room led by our teachers, many of whom were on the verge of tears. We were the youngest grade to be notified, they said. It was a sign that we were being treated as adults. "Please," we were told, "Don't tell the younger kids." That was in 2001. Today, the pervasiveness of social media means adults are no longer the only ones shouldering the weight of mass trauma. Kids have access, too. Kids are watching. So how do we talk to children about the attack in Las Vegas? What do we talk about when we talk about violence?

When tragedies, especially large senseless ones like Sunday night's mass shooting in Las Vegas in which 58 were killed and over 500 were injured, sorting through feelings, let alone articulating them, can prove arduous. Conversations with peers can quickly devolve into shouting matches, because mass exhibitions of violence are never just about the crime. How do we speak with our children if we can barely make it through discussions with fellow adults?

Although reports are still coming through, here's what we do know about Las Vegas: It was the act of one shooter, who fired into the crowd at the Route 91 Harvest Festival from his hotel room on a high floor of the Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino. The first reports of shots came soon after 10 p.m. local time, while country music star Jason Aldean was onstage. The death toll currently sits at 58, with more than 500 transported to area hospitals. Already, it is one of the deadliest mass shootings in modern American history.

The shooter was found dead his room. Based on the shooting pattern, it's suspected that the shooter used at least one automatic weapon. The New York Times has reported that 19 rifles were found in his room, along with hundreds of rounds of ammunition.

Rightfully so, gun control advocates have taken to social media, calling, pleading, for a shift in the way we legislate firearms. Gun rights advocates have, for the most part, refused to engage, citing inconsideration for the families affected. Dana Loesch, a spokesperson for the NRA, suggested on Twitter that her opponents, "Offer a prayer & temper your desire for politics." Her pinned tweet, meanwhile, remains a call of resignation for a congresswoman who referred to the NRA as a terror organization.

In President Trump's official statement, he called the shooting an "act of evil," but refused to refer to it as an incident of domestic terrorism, despite the immense death toll.

So. How do we talk to our kids about... all of this? We spoke with Samantha Hatt, a pediatric nurse with a background in Emergency Trauma.

Speak Simply and Consider Their Age

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"Generally, when we're dealing with any sort of tragedy, we approach talking to kids in a simple way, trying to be a little more direct in terms that they understand," said Hatt.

But Be Direct

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"Using code words isn’t good with kids," said Hatt. They may muddle the situation and further confuse your child.

An example would be, "Something big has happened, there was a bad guy who harmed a lot of people," and then elaborating based on your comfort level. If it's an older child and you feel they can handle it, you may want to add that a lot of people were killed.

Be Prepared For Their Questions

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"Kids are generally going to ask 'Why?'" said Hatt. "That's often their first question. Kids are very curious. They’re trying to learn."

And Don't Pressure Yourself To Have All The Answers

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It's okay to say, "I don't know."

Ask What They've Already Heard

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Ask if the kids have already heard about what's happened. A lot of kids will have heard bits and pieces at school. "Ask how they feel, and what their thoughts are," said Hatt.

But Always Start With, "Do You Want To Talk About It?"

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They may not. And you need to respect their decision.

Be As Open As Possible

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"It's okay to ask, 'Do you have any questions for me?' said Hatt. "And then be honest, be as straightforward as you can. Lying to them doesn't really help them deal or cope."

Understand That Their Coping Process May Take Time

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"The best thing is to provide them reassurance. They need it," said Hatt. "It’s a scary world and this stuff is terrifying. It may be constant reassurance in the aftermath of a tragedy. They may need it every day."

Non-verbal physical cues, like hugging and cuddling, can help, too, if it seems like they're not listening.

Describe Their Safety Net

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List their safety net - "Mommy, daddy, your teachers, your school, your aunts and uncles" - and let them know you're all here to keep them safe. Make the kid feel surrounded and secure.

"Tell them, 'There are some people that do bad things, but we work really hard to make sure that you’re not around those people,'" said Hatt.

Develop A Family Vocabulary

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It's hard to admit, but the Las Vegas attack likely will not be the last American mass shooting. Establishing a pre-set, family-wide vocabulary for speaking about unpleasant things can be effective in handling unexpected moments of trauma.

Chicago-based actress Charlotte Thomas, 25, whose mother has a Ph.D in child development, recalls being trained early on to identify feelings of fear and safety through books, movies and every day scenarios. "When 9/11 happened she didn't sit me down and be like, 'A terrorist attack happened and everything is scary,'" Thomas tells Bustle. "She was like, 'Something big happened in the country. We are safe in this house right now. Would you like to talk about what is happening?' So I could make the decisions about when I wanted it to happen."

And Teach Them To Articulate Their Fears

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"Don’t placate them," said Hatt. "Letting them openly express their fears makes it easier to address them. Always tell them, 'If you're scared, if you don't feel right, say something. Tell someone.'"