When I heard the news about the Batman shooting on the radio this morning, I thought about what, if anything, I should say to my daughters. To find out, I turned to child psychiatrist Elizabeth Berger, author of Raising Kids with Character. Excerpts:
What, if anything, should parents and grandparents say to kids about a tragedy like this one?
I would suggest to grownups, particularly, of course, for younger children, that they're not obligated to talk about it. If children don't seem to be raising an issue, there's no sense in going there. At any age, the role of parents is to help the child with what the child has on the child's mind. If there's a death in the immediate family, the family can't help but talk about it. There are some things that one must talk about with children because otherwise the children will feel betrayed that they have not been told. "Mommy and daddy are getting a divorce. Why didn't you tell me?"
So parents and grandparents shouldn't feel they need to bring up the Batman shooting?
No. The world is full of dreadful things. It's the role of parents to use judgment as to which of them is necessary to discuss with children. The parents can watch for signals that something is on the child's mind. If the child walks into the house and says, "I'm not going into a movie theater — I might get shot," the parent would be on firm ground to suspect the child has heard about this. If the child is eagerly going to see "Batman," the parent doesn't have to spoil it by saying, "I hope we're not all shot." Some things are not on a little kid's radar. The same is true of older children and adults. If they aren't preoccupied with it, the parent doesn't have to be Debbie downer.
What if kids say they're afraid to go to the theater?
I think you can say the world has 7 billion people on it, and if one person does some deranged act, then this is of course terrible, but you have to put it in perspective as being an incredibly rare event. The parent can just say, "I'm 64 years old, and I've never heard of anybody dying in a movie theater before." The parent's job is to validate the feeling on the one hand, because it isn't good for children to be taught that their thoughts and feelings are dumb or make the parent upset. But the fact is that we're all much more likely to have some other problem. Launching into a whole list of how much more likely you are to be hit by lighting is not grand either, because the point is that the child is anxious and needs comfort.
How can parents and grandparents explain why someone would try to kill so many people?
The parent should say, "Human beings sometimes do unspeakable things, and we don't really understand it," and leave it there. If you're a college teacher teaching a psychology class, it's one thing. But I don't think it's a parent's role to speculate. This does not do anybody any good. If the child is in medical school, you can have an intellectual discussion about brain disease or psychosis or drug abuse or whatever. But I don't think it's healthy, particularly when there's nothing known and everything is just in a state of shock and speculation, to feed into that. It is a fact that we don't know anything about this individual. So far as where we are today, this has no explanation.
What else can parents say to kids?
"This is an extraordinarily rare event. People who are deeply learned about human problems probably have a deeper understanding about this." If the children want to read technical material in medical journals, they're free to go find it. But mostly children [want] to comfort their anxieties about their own death, about their own angry feelings. These are about universal childhood anxieties about dependency on people you love and your understanding that people don't live forever and about one's ordinary anger inside. The parent's role is to work with the everyday. This is not an everyday experience. [Say], "I've lived a long time, and I've never heard of such a thing. This is for the experts to worry over in technical journals. Is there something else worrying you?" Then the child can burst into tears and say, "Yes, my teacher gave me a dirty look the other day."
Should adults bring up past killers?
A child who's asking a legitimate intellectual question can be directed to the library. The librarian can help this younger person find a shelf with books about serial killers on it.
Could this news event make kids worry that the adults they love might die if they go to the movies this weekend?
Anxiety and death are ever present in all children. Children are afraid of death because they're human beings, and this is part of the human condition. Of course these incredibly unusual, sensationalist horrors stir up in ordinary people — universal terrors that life and relationships and security can be blown away by a sudden heart attack. Children think of it in terms of a sniper coming in the kitchen. That's not the problem. The problem is high cholesterol, and you need a colonoscopy — everyday reasons that cause children to lose their parents.
Some parents may be tempted to talk about their views of gun control. A good idea, or not?
The time for this parent to talk about gun control is the time when they're talking about who are we electing to city council next week. The parent's role is to say this is the most unusual thing in the world — I've never heard of such thing happening. At the same time, it reminds us all of the pet that died, of grandma who died. All human beings are vulnerable to the hard facts of separation and death and sudden violence. It's not about gun control, and it's not about mental illness, and it's not about Batman. Children, whether realistically or unrealistically, tune in to the fact that life has the potential to be terrifying. The parent can go off on a riff about universal fears that we all have, and aren't we just glad we have this pizza to enjoy together tonight.
What about worries over copycat movie-theater killers?
It's sort of natural for people to have that feeling. [But] most people who are the victims of homicide are killed by someone they know. If I had a 13-year-old who was going to "Batman" tonight, would this not cross my mind? Of course it would. I would get over it by saying that I understand I have 1,000 reasons to be nervous that really don't have to do with "Batman."
What else should people consider about the shooting?
It reminds people that the world is full of frightening and dangerous situations for many of the people who live on earth. This brings us together in the sense of feeling that the simple things are more precious because we're reminded of how suddenly they can be taken from us. That could be making something constructive out of a terrible tragedy.
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