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Mass shootings can affect kids' mental health. Here are some ways to respond.

 A child steps across colorful blocks.
Cheryl Senter

Many parents and caregivers are struggling to explain the recent mass shooting in Maine to their children. But mental health practitioners say there are steps they can take to support young people through difficult moments like this.

Professionals recommend limiting, or at least closely monitoring, kids’ media consumption. But it’s also important for adults to monitor their own reactions.

“Establishing safety before you even get into any talking points is really important, because that typically is something that feels really tenuous right now,” said Sandra Woodman, who leads the Dover-based mental health organization Community Partners.

Woodman said the ways parents and adults engage can have a big influence on how kids interpret the news. Adults can regulate their own emotions by taking a breath, grounding themselves and making sure they don’t bring their anxiety across the table, she said.

Dover lies along the Maine border, and is about an hour and a half drive from Lewiston, where 18 people were killed in this week's shooting. Woodman said proximity, and the reality of violence, can affect kids’ wellbeing.

That’s part of why it’s important for adults to affirm kids' and teens' emotions, she said, making sure not to dismiss their worries or promise safety when they know businesses and schools in Lewiston are still in lockdown or closed.

“We could have some people here in New Hampshire that have family friends,” Woodman said. “It hits really close to home, and so it's hard when a child says, ‘I feel scared and I'm told that they're having these lockdowns and it sounds like they're not safe. So why should I feel safe right now?’ And you want to validate that; that is scary.”

Instead, Woodman suggests reminding kids of the safety points they have in their lives: supportive adults they can turn to, or communal places that are safe and consistent. Doing so can help kids understand why there are lockdowns and why there is a police presence, she said.

“You also want to normalize that bad things do happen sometimes, and it's unlikely that they do happen,” Woodman said.

The point is not to dismiss kids’ emotions, but to help redirect them back to the routines and established structures around them that can help them maintain a sense of safety. That can include ensuring regular family activities still take place and keeping kids on established schedules.

Woodman said children do not need to regularly talk about events and being mindful of media consumption is important, so they’re not repeatedly reminded of traumatic events. However, she said, that doesn’t mean limiting all media consumption: music, drawing, and other activities can help them cope.

“If you're listening to the news or social media, you're going to feel like everything is chaotic when that may not be true for their lives,” she said.

Jodie Lubarsky, vice president of clinical operations for Youth and Family Services at Seacoast Mental Health Center, echoed many of Woodman’s suggestions.

It’s also important, Lubarsky added, to consider how you — or others around you — are talking about the mental health of the person suspected of carrying out an act of violence.

“As somebody who's been working in the mental health care field for over 25 years, I tend to get a little frustrated when we go straight to the place of blaming mental illness,” Lubarsky said. “Because actually, statistics show that an individual diagnosed with a serious and persistent mental illness is more likely to be a victim of a crime than to commit a crime.”

This can be especially harmful for kids who are navigating their own mental health diagnoses, Lubarsky warned.

“How do they start to perceive and see themselves when we hear this blasted all over the place?” she said.

When we do not know the precise reasons why a tragic event like a mass shooting occurred, she said, it’s better to stick to facts.

If parents start to notice that their child is acting sad or changing their routines — including their sleeping or eating habits — it might mean their child needs extra support, Lubarsky said. School counselors and other mental health professionals can help to distinguish what might be a normal reaction to difficult events from a more serious change in behavior, she said.

“I think it's really important, as the adults who might be caring for a young child, is just to say, ‘I've noticed that you haven't been wanting to play outside,’ or ‘I noticed that you've skipped practice all week or you're not playing with your siblings,’ whatever that is that the adult has observed,” Lubarksy said.

Most importantly, she said, adults should keep the conversations with the kids in their life open and affirming.

“I think it's really important in a kind and sensitive way to point it out and then say, ‘Is there something going on you want to talk about?’ ” she said. “That could be that opening that needs to be created to get the young person to talk.”

Olivia joins us from WLVR/Lehigh Valley Public Media, where she covered the Easton area in eastern Pennsylvania. She has also reported for WUWM in Milwaukee and WBEZ in Chicago.