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Austin bombings: How do you talk to your kids about what’s happening?

Nicole Villalpando

Parents, you might be wondering what you’re supposed to say to your children about the recent bombings in Austin. How do you keep them safe, keep them informed, yet not scare them? What is too much information? What is too little?

With all acts of violence and terror — like shootings in public places and schools or now like the bombings — “it really depends on the age of your kid,” says Julie Hoke, director of psychological services at Austin Child Guidance Center. Very young kids who might never be taking a package off the front porch, might not need you to say much of anything to, she says.

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For older kids, give them a simplified version of what is happening. Prepare yourself for what you are going to say and check your emotions before you talk to them.

“You’re going to check your own anxiety level,” Hoke says. “Our inhibition isn’t as good when we’re feeling stressed out ourselves.”

Many kids already will know what is happening because schools are talking about it, their friends are talking about it, they have access to social media. They are looking to their parents and teachers to reassure them. “Your goal in talking to your child is making sure they are feeling safe,” she says.

Don’t go into graphic or gory details. “Even with older kids, you don’t want to overshare,” she says.

That also might mean you limit their access to TV news and social media right now. You might not want to have the news running in the background at all times. You’re trying to avoid exposing kids (and really yourself, too) to a secondary trauma.

“Generally when stuff like this happens, it’s important to maintain your normal routine as much as possible,” Hoke says. That doesn’t mean you ignore what’s going on.

Give them updates, but remind them that adults and law enforcement are going to do everything they can to keep them safe.

You’ll want to have kids, especially those that might walk by packages left at the front door, take precautions just like you’ll be taking precautions that police are recommending.

  • Tell kids to stay away from any package they see.
  • Ask them to tell an adult if they see a package.
  • Alert them if you know you will be receiving a package, and tell them not to touch that package until you are sure it’s the package you were expecting.
  • If they see something suspicious whether at the front door, their school or in their neighborhood, they need to avoid it and tell an adult.
  • If they are concerned about what’s left at your doorstep, you might want to consider a new way to enter the house like the backdoor or garage door for now.
  • If they walk or ride their bike to school or a friend’s house, remind them to avoid anything suspicious by walking around the area and that they can always turn around to return to safety. Then they should let an adult know what they saw.

If your neighborhood or their school becomes the site of a lockdown, check yourself and make sure you’re not exuding anxiety and then tell your child what is going on.

“Sadly most kids do this drill at school,” Hoke says. You can tell them, “this is like what you do at school. It’s a really big area, and police have to make sure we are safe.”

Some kids are just more prone to anxiety or becoming fixated on what’s happening. This can be true if they’ve experienced a trauma before. Be especially careful with what you say to those children. If you’re sensing a change in their behavior and increase of anxiety or becoming fixated on the event, try to be reassuring and then seek help if those behaviors continue.

During this time, Hoke says, practice self-care, too. Remember to put on your oxygen mask first.

“Parenting is hard, and it’s really hard when all this stuff is happening,” she says. “We have to reassure them we are safe. It’s the thing you have to do.”

You also want to be authentic and genuine, she says, but you have to put up a wall and not show them the true depths of our fear and anxiety. “They are going to take the cue from us.”