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Why You Do Need to Talk to Your Children about the Tragedy in Orlando

By Dr. Brad Schwall

When the unimaginable happens, children are the most vulnerable because they are so impressionable. The tragedy in Orlando presents some particularly difficult issues to address as a family. Children and teens are exposed to tragedy even when we do our best to shield them. Practically speaking, it's important to avoid too much media exposure and young children need to be protected from exposure to the details and images altogether. Older children and teens need the opportunity to talk about current events in the world, especially when the events are difficult to comprehend.

Our older children and teens can benefit from listening and sharing in order to deal with the secondary trauma of hearing about the massacre of innocent lives. The tragedy highlights some difficult, polarizing, and important issues. A conversation with older youth about these issues can encourage discernment, perspective-taking, and respect for the complexity of culture and society. A conversation about these issues is meant for pre-teens and teens based on your understanding of their temperament and need to discuss what happened.

What may we discuss as a family?

In order to encourage a healthy response to the tragedy, focus on compassion for those who lost loved ones. It's important to recognize that family members, friends, and co-workers were lost. Focusing on those who are helping helps give us hope that our world does have people who care and are brave and selfless. To allay any anxiety about the unpredictability of violence in the world, emphasize that there are many people working to keep us safe every day.

A common existential question that arises from incidents like this one involves the question, “Why do tragedies like this happen?” There is no explanation. It is inconceivable to us. We can't think how someone capable of such an act is thinking at that time. Faith is brought into the discussion as people  may wonder how God could allow something like this to happen, reflect on how free will allows people to make harmful choices, and observe how people rely on God’s presence and prayer in difficult times.  There are many questions we may have that don't have simple answers, but we can seek to understand the factors that may contribute to such a horrific scenario.

  • Mental health is a factor in any situation in which an individual acts with a disregard to life
  • Individuals can lose touch with reality
  • Individuals can lose the ability to have empathy
  • Violence as a response to beliefs can be adopted and internalized by individuals

Teens and older children can benefit from discussing the other issues involved in the shooting in Orlando that are all inter-related. Dialogue and problem-solving in communities and government are key to addressing  the challenges highlighted by this massacre. Topics in the public forum that may be discussed as a family include the following:

  • Gun control
  • Religion
  • Culture
  • Sexual orientation
  • Laws and the legal system
  • Mental illness
  • Discrimination
  • Family and community
  • Rights
  • Responsibilities

You may want to discuss whom these issues impact, the different viewpoints about the issues, the ramifications of the various solutions, and the roles that these topics play in this tragedy. Having a conversation with your teens about these issues can help them in learning how to gain an understanding of society and culture and how to think analytically. By modeling healthy dialogue, we are emphasizing the importance of compassion, empathy, problem-solving, respect, and communication. By having meaningful conversation you're demonstrating that your children deserve attention and have important things to say.