The horrific tragedy in Colorado has left us all speechless, shaking our heads in disbelief. How could this have happened? Could anything really have been done to stop this mad man? And what can we possibly tell our children...if they ask?
Parents are rendered tongue-tied when it comes to talking to their kids about many different kinds of things -- sex, death, God. But when it is a topic that is terrifying and may create fear where none existed previously, then we are dumbstruck, reduced to being mute. This is one of those times. How do you explain a senseless massacre in a movie theater to your vulnerable child, whether he or she is 8 or 18?
To start, unless your child has been exposed to this incident -- by radio, TV, Internet or overhearing your loose talk -- there is absolutely no reason to bring it up to him. However, if your child comes to you exclaiming, "Did you hear what happened at the Batman movie?" your first job is to find out what he knows. Ask him to share what he heard. That way you will know what information you need to address or correct to the best of your ability. After you share the correct information, and your child asks, "Why did he do that?" you can explain something like:
Just like people sometimes have problems with their bodies, like a hearing impairment or a leg that doesn't work, for example, once in a long while, someone has a severe problem with his or her brain. The guy who did the shooting had a big problem with his brain. It didn't work properly, and he did a horrible, crazy thing. He could not think right.
You may need to add for reassurance:
This doesn't happen very often at all, most people's brains work right. But once in a while someone's mind doesn't tell him what is and isn't okay to do. He simply doesn't know right from wrong, and he can't stop himself from doing crazy things. But this is very very rare; it doesn't happen very often at all.
Depending on your child's maturity, if your child is older than 10 and comes to you wanting to talk about the shooting, open up the flood gates. Encourage the conversation. Ask him what he thinks might have been going on with someone who does something so horrific. Then, share the same observations about mental illness, and the rarity of the act. Not only will he share the burden of his fears with you, thereby lessening his load, but you will be able to reassure him of the randomness of the act and how remote the likelihood of it happening again is.
You might also discuss how the media and Internet bring terrible news instantly and relentlessly. While it is an unfathomable act, having the horror thrown into your consciousness makes the event even bigger. You can't escape it.
In truth, there are no fool-proof precautions to teach your child when it comes to being safe at all times, including when he goes to a movie. Beyond knowing where the closest exit is and to leave calmly in the event of an emergency, people are sitting ducks in a theater. Is this going to stop you or your children from seeing films? I hope not.
If your child had planned to see the latest Batman, forbidding him from going will likely fuel any fear that a shooting like this will happen again. You need to communicate to your child that the day-to-day world in which we live is actually safe. This heinous event is not the norm, even though knowing about past events like Columbine and Virginia Tech make it seem like tragedy strikes often. This terrible massacre was a singular and highly extraordinary event.
The hard part is that you need to believe this too. Your children will pick up on your feelings. Do your best, for them.