Yasmine Awais is a creative-arts therapist and assistant clinical professor with Drexel University, as well as a board member of Artistic Noise, a nonprofit that seeks to empower incarcerated and court-involved youth. She offered her thoughts on how parents can help their children process Monday’s terrible news out of Las Vegas.
How would you start to talk about this with a child? What are the main messages you would want to get across?
Avoiding the discussion is not useful. For a young child, it may not be necessary to broach the topic directly but to answer any questions they have if it comes up. Another approach is to ask your child what they talked about or heard in school today, whether they discussed current events. Adults often do not realize that children are amazing listeners and can pick up on many things. Typically, children want to know if they are safe. This is where having an emergency plan is helpful. When children and loved ones know there is a safety plan in place, it leads to a greater sense of security and less panic or fear.
How would your approach vary for different ages?
With all ages, be honest. With a younger child, I would take their lead, and answer their questions. It is OK to say that you do not know. With a middle schooler or high schooler, it may be important to be more direct and broach the topic. An older child may initially say they are OK, but that does not mean an uncomfortable discussion isn’t warranted. The roles of teacher and parent overlap, yet are distinct. Teachers can bring up mass shootings in the context of current events, as well as how they will ensure the students’ safety. Parents also have the responsibility to ensure safety of their family, as well as provide love and a sense of security. Parents should not make assumptions about teenagers. They may have questions and fears, just like you.
Are there any things you think that adults should not say or do?
I would advise adults not to say that everything is OK, that it happened somewhere else and will not happen here. As we know, mass shootings happen in all places. It is important to be open and honest, again, being considerate of the child’s age and developmental level. While it may feel comforting at first to say “everything will be OK,” children and teenagers may sense that things are not OK and may, as a result, not trust us.
The Las Vegas shooting comes on the heels of ongoing, large-scale suffering caused by several natural disasters. How can adults — who themselves may be overwhelmed — help kids cope?
Adults cannot help children cope if they are feeling overwhelmed themselves. The American Art Therapy Association recommends “taking time for reflection and self-care.” The American Psychological Association notes the importance of building resilience as “an important part of preparing for the unexpected.” Regardless of whether violence is man made or natural, it is difficult to comprehend for adults and children alike.
You are a creative-arts therapist. How can art help children deal with what they may be feeling at times like this?
A child (or adult) may not be able to articulate their feelings, but they may be able to draw them, or scream them, or curl up in a ball in a way that shows you their feelings. If you have difficulty talking with your children about current events, create a fun and creative way to “check in” on a regular basis — perhaps a family journal, group drawing, or group poem. If a child, teenager, or adult is expressing difficulties, and words seem to be evading them, an art therapist or other creative-arts therapist or expressive therapist specializes in both verbal psychotherapy and also non-verbal communication, and the therapeutic applications of art-making and expression.