Tragedy in Orlando: Explaining the Unexplainable to Your Children

June 13, 2016

How to talk to your young children about the worst mass shooting in the history of the United States?

Parents who mourned with the rest of the nation after a gunman killed 49 people at a gay nightclub in the early hours of June 12 in Orlando, Fla., were left to decide what, if anything, their children should know about the tragedy.

“Always take a developmental approach,” said Dr. Laura Saunders, a clinical psychologist at the Institute of Living during an appearance Monday on NBC Connecticut (watch the video above). “Young children should get little or no information – turn TVs off for them. Older children may have question and we just simply answer their questions. That tells us how much information they really want.”

Dr. James F. O’Dea, a clinical psychologist and vice president of operations for Hartford HealthCare's Behavioral Health Network, said the Orlando massacre shows the need for resources to help people who have been affected by the tragedy, either directly or indirectly, cope with feelings of distress or despair.

“It’s a difficult topic for any parent to discuss,” he said, “but it’s one that’s becoming increasingly necessary to be prepared for, unfortunately.”

O’Dea said when children ask questions about the tragedy, parents should limit their responses while offering assurance that their communities are safe and all parents, school officials and local law enforcement work every day to keep them safe. Even in the worst circumstances, such as the Orlando shootings, it's important to find something positive to tell your young children.

"There are always more people trying to help that trying to hurt," said Dr. Paul Weigle, a staff psychiatrist at Natchaug Hospital in an appearance on Fox 61 Monday (watch the video below). "It’s important for kids to know that."

Discussions with older children and teens can be open and honest.

“The guidelines I use are reinforce, review and reassure,” said Saunders. “Reinforce that it’s OK to have feelings. Review any safety measures, because what a tragedy like this brings up is anxiety. What if something happens to us in our home? What if something happens in our school? So review the safety measures. And reinforce when something like this happens, come and talk about it. That’s the message we really want to send.”

Ultimately, parents should trust their judgment when determining what to share with their children.

“Parents know their kids,” said Saunders. “They know which ones are little more vulnerable, a little more prone to being scared or anxious. They may be the ones we have to look out for a little more.”

Hartford HealthCare Press Contact

  • Shawn Mawhiney
    Director of Communications