What Should Parents be Telling Their Children About the Tragedy in Aurora, Colorado?

How does a parent begin to explain such a horrific event to their child when they themselves cannot conceive of such horror existing in the world? If we as adults cannot wrap our minds around such devastating acts of violence, how are our children supposed to cope with this tragedy.
However, it is imperative that parents begin the dialogue with their children. For even in parents’ best attempts to protect their children from such tragedy, children will be exposed to the terrible event on July 20, 2012. Their friends will talk about it, they will overhear a news report, or sense their parents’ feelings of anger, bewilderment, and shock as they talk to neighbors, friends, and clergy.
In talking to children about this tragedy, parents need first to understand the developmental level their child is at in order to fully comprehend how their child will receive information. A review of the cognitive development of children will help in this process:

• Occurs between about the ages of 2 and 7
• At 2-4 years of age, kids cannot yet manipulate and transform information in logical ways, but they now can think in images and symbols.
• Egocentrism is common at this age when a child is unable to distinguish between their own perspective and that of another person’s. Children tend to pick their own view of what they see rather than the actual view shown to others.
• Animism is the belief that inanimate objects are capable of actions and have lifelike qualities. An example is a child believing that the sidewalk was mad and made them fall down.

• The concrete operational stage follows the preoperational stage and occurs between the ages of 7 and 11 years and is characterized by the appropriate use of logic.
• Lessening of egocentrism and the ability to take on other’s perspectives
• Can reverse their thinking
• Children in this stage can, however, only solve problems that apply to actual (concrete) objects or events, and not abstract concepts or hypothetical tasks.


• The final stage is known as Formal operational stage (adolescence to adulthood)
• Intelligence is demonstrated through the logical use of symbols related to abstract concepts.
• At this point, the child is capable of hypothetical and deductive reasoning. During this time, people develop the ability to think about abstract concepts.
• Abstract thought emerges during the formal operational stage. Children tend to think very concretely and specifically in earlier stages. Children begin to consider possible outcomes and consequences of actions.
• The ability to systematically solve a problem in a logical and methodical way emerges.

Children’s concepts of death, dying, and religion also fall into developmental stages. For the preoperational child, abstract concepts such as the inevitability, universality, and finality of death are unfathomable. Therefore the following guidelines will be helpful to parents in deciding how to talk to their children about the tragedy in Aurora.


• Remember that anything you tell your preschooler at this time will be filtered through their preoperational brain. Therefore limit your information to concrete and simple terms. Demonstrate when you can. For example in describing life and death have the child find all the things that are alive, ie, flowers, grass, pets, people, and then contrast it to things that are dead, ie, plant, grass stems, ant, etc.
• Don’t lie to children. It is imperative that you tell children the truth in terms of what they can absorb. And it is important not to use euphemisms for death. Terms such as “passing away” or “gone to a better place” will only serve to confuse young children who already see death as temporary. Avoid using the term “gone to sleep” for this may create fear in a young child about bedtime.
• Unless your child asks “ will I die?” or “will you die?” you don’t need to bring these subjects up at this time of the child’s development. However, if they ask, it is important to tell the truth in a reassuring way. For example if your child asks, “will I die?” a common response from parents is to say “no.” However, children have a sense when adults are not telling them the truth and thus become more confused and worried about death. A good response to a preoperational child who asks such questions is to say everything living dies and even you will die some day but not for a very long time. Children at this age will not become focused on these issues and short and simple answers will suffice. They will soon become bored with the topic and go on to other play. Do not linger on the explanations or make them prolonged topics of conversation.
• Children at this age will divide the world into good and bad and helping them further distinguish between those people and things that are safe or dangerous can help a child feel more empowered and less fearful.
• When children ask about the “person who killed all of the people” try to remember that your pre-operational preschooler sees the world in black and white and good and bad. It is best to stick with a black and white perspective at this point letting your child know that some people would never hurt anyone. But some people do very bad things. Play a game and have your child list or draw all the good people he or she knows. Then have your child draw a bad” person. Help your child draw a jail around the bad person while explaining that some people do bad things and the police take those people to jail to keep us protected.
• There are some excellent preschool books about dying that can be read to children and be kept available when your child asks questions. Books for preschoolers that deal with death are: Lifetimes: A beautiful way to explain death to children by Bryan Mellonie and Water Bugs and Dragonflies: Explaining Death to Young Children, A Coloring Book written by Doris Stickney and illustrated by Robin Henderson Nordstrom
• Children at this stage are capable of magical thinking. So use this ability in a healthy and creative way to help your child cope with the anxiety and fear that are surrounding this latest incident. Create safe places for your child to go. Have them bring into this “safe” place, everything that makes them feel comforted. Books, clay, coloring materials, stuffed animals, bubbles, etc. can be placed in their designated “safe place.” Encourage them to use this place when they feel the need to feel safe.

School-Age Children:
Children at this stage of development can handle more information but they continue to be concrete and struggle with abstract concepts. Books about death are helpful at this stage and should be made available to children so they can read them when they are interested. Be available to answer their questions in a concrete and honest manner. Examples of children’s books that deal with the concept of death are: What Is Death by Etan Boritzer, The Kid’s Book About Death and Dying by Eric Rofes (particularly good for older school-aged children, The Tenth Good Thing About Barney by Judith Viorst

• Children at this stage may want to explore the concepts of death and violence with parents by drawing pictures, painting their feelings and writing stories. Children at this age are industrious and like to do projects to express what they are learning and feelings.
• Parents can begin to talk to their children about how watching violence on television and movies can make them more aggressive. Help your child make better choices in selecting video games, television shows, and movies and reward them when they choose non-violent games.
• School-age children may demonstrate their fears and anxieties through somatic symptoms such as stomach pain or headaches. Teach your child ways of relaxing; deep breathing, blowing bubbles, and imagining a safe place is helpful in relieving negative thoughts and feelings.
• If your child shows sadness about the incidents, help them to make a “memorial” for the people who lost their lives in the Aurora shooting. Plant a flower, hang ribbons, and have your child make special pictures for the people. This will model healthy grieving.
• Don’t hide your emotions from your child. If you feel sad and want to cry, don’t be afraid to do this in front of your child as long as it is moderate and contained. This will allow your child to better express feelings.

• Remember that the adolescent brain is not fully formed and thus may vacillate between concrete and more formal levels of thinking. Do not assume that your adolescent fully understands the finality, universality, and inevitability of death.
• Your adolescent will need time to process events such as the Aurora shooting. Often teens like to talk to one another. Support groups that deal with concepts such as violence and death can be very instrumental for your teen in processing emotions. Look for such support groups in your community, schools, or churches.
• Help your adolescent cope with this tragedy by allowing them to process it without making judgments on what they are saying. Once a teen feels as if his or her parents are judging them, they will shut down.
• Have everyone in the family keep a family journal about how they are feeling about the Aurora shooting. Keep this journal in a place accessible to all family members and once a week, have a family meeting where the contents of the journal are read and processed. Don’t make any judgments about what is written. The journal is a non-critical and non-judgmental form of communication for your family.

Remember that this latest tragedy is difficult for all of us to comprehend and digest. In following some of the above steps and guidelines, you can facilitate your child’s reactions to what is happening in the world all around them. Not to talk about it will only serve to confuse and frighten children even more, as they will inevitably hear about the terrible tragedy of the Aurora shooting from other children and adults.


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