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How to talk to children following mass shootings in California, Washington

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(NEW YORK) — As news continues to unfold following multiple deadly mass shootings within the last few days in California and the state of Washington, experts are advising parents not to shy away from talking to their kids about what happened and the aftermath.

At least 11 people were killed and nine were injured after a gunman opened fire Saturday night at Star Ballroom Dance Studio in Monterey Park, California. In northern California, seven people were killed after shootings at two farm locations in Half Moon Bay on Monday.

Early Tuesday, another shooting broke out at a Circle K convenience store in Yakima, Washington, leaving three people dead and a possible fourth person injured.

ABC News chief medical correspondent Dr. Jennifer Ashton shared tips on how families and caregivers can talk to young people about mass shootings last July on GMA3.

Read on to see her advice — and tips from other experts — on how to discuss sensitive issues with your kids:

Start an age-appropriate conversation

“The first step is to make an age-appropriate dialogue, open lines of communication with your child,” Ashton recommended.

Dr. Robin Gurwitch, a licensed clinical psychologist and Duke University professor who specializes in speaking to children about trauma and disasters, agrees. Parents and caregivers should “be willing to bring this topic up,” Gurwitch told GMA last May.

“We really want to want to wrap our arms around them and make them feel safe,” Gurwitch said at the time. “But part of being a parent is willingness to discuss difficult topics.”

Gurwitch added that it helps to discuss the topic in a calm manner, listen to children’s perspectives and concerns, ask and respond to questions, and reassure them whenever possible.

Ashton also encouraged parents to lead with honesty and transparency and to not be afraid to say “I don’t have an answer” or share their feelings.

“We shouldn’t sit back and wait for them to come up and say, ‘Mom, Dad, I’d like to talk about gun violence,'” Ashton continued. “We’re going to need to take the first step and come to them early and often and say, ‘What are you thinking about? What are you afraid of? What questions do you have?'”

Ashton suggested that adults offer a solution, such as, “‘I don’t have an answer to that but I’ll help you find it. I know you’re scared, so am I, but let me tell you what your teachers and what your parents and community are trying to do to help you stay safe.'”

Monitor children’s behavior

Psychiatrist and author Dr. Janet Taylor and Gurwitch both said children can respond to disturbing news about mass shootings in different ways and parents should pay attention to see if their child’s behaviors change. Children can experience problems focusing, sleeping or become more irritable.

“If you have younger children and they suddenly get more clingy or want to sleep in bed with you, pay attention to that and cuddle them as they need it,” Taylor told GMA in 2022. “Older kids may become more isolated or feel that they have to solve things by themselves.”

Practice stress reduction techniques

News of mass shootings can negatively impact children and adults and trigger anxiety and other feelings of stress. Author Rachel Simmons said breathing exercises can help for kids but also for parents, who can model the practice.

“You can take a deep breath, count to three, hold it for three and then let it out for three, so it’s nine seconds of breathing in … and breathing out,” Simmons told ABC News in 2019. “Do it three times. They can kind of drop back into their bodies and feel a lot calmer.”

Remember to check in

Instead of discussing a mass shooting only once, Gurwitch said it’s crucial to continue the conversation over time.

“A one-and-done conversation is not sufficient,” she said. “Let your child or teenager know that ‘I really do care about you and I am open to having this discussion.'”

Get professional help

If a child’s stress levels or response to a mass shooting are hard to manage, doctors say parents shouldn’t hesitate to seek guidance from their pediatrician, a local psychological association, a counselor, social worker or other mental health experts and community leaders.

Licensed psychologist Dr. Sanam Hafeez also pointed out that if a parent or caregiver is struggling themselves, they should not wait to seek help.

“Psychologists, psychiatrists, mental health professionals like myself are available on telehealth … so if you feel that your anxiety is at an all-time high from not just coping with the stressors that are facing us but from mass shootings … if you feel that your anxiety is where you are really afraid to go back into the real world and you’re missing out on life, it’s time to seek help,” Hafeez told ABC News in 2021.

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network offers comprehensive resource guides for parents, caregivers and educators to support students. Click here for resources related to school shootings.

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