This year, we are marking the 15th anniversary of this blog, Catechist’s Journey. Sadly, within the first year of the blog’s creation, I found myself writing a post about helping children to cope with news about a mass shooting at Virginia Tech. A year later, I posted in the wake of a mass shooting at Northern Illinois University. Several years later, I posted again, as a result of the Newton mass shooting. Once again, within a few years, I found myself posting in the wake of the mass shootings in Las Vegas. And now, here we are, several years later, and it sickens me to have to post once again in the wake of the horrendous mass shootings at a school in Uvalde, Texas, and, just 10 days before that, at a supermarket in Buffalo. And that’s not to mention the many mass shootings that occurred between the above-mentioned events.
This time, however, I’m not simply re-posting the strategies about how to talk to children about violence and tragedies. That would be a disservice to you. The full and correct Catholic response is not only to talk about how to cope (a Spiritual Work of Mercy), but also to talk about what has to change (social justice). I’ve written before about the “two feet of Catholic social action.” One foot is charity (taking care of people’s immediate needs), while the other foot is social justice (addressing the structures and policies in society that cause people to be deprived of what they deserve). It is a charitable and compassionate thing to help people cope with their immediate suffering. Social justice, however, is our commitment to change the conditions that cause that suffering. Social justice is not a liberal or conservative issue; it is a “constitutive dimension of preaching the Gospel, and an essential part of the Church’s mission.” (U.S. Bishops, Communities of Salt and Light)
With that in mind, here are suggestions and strategies for helping children to cope with violence and tragedy as well as information and suggestions for taking action that leads to systemic change of the structures and conditions that allow gun violence to proliferate in our country.
Helping Children to Cope with Violence and Tragedy
- Encourage younger children to seek physical comfort from their parents and relatives. Hugs and hand-holding from parents can provide children with the comfort and security that they need.
- Provide reassuring and appropriate smiles without being glib.
- Reassure your children that you are there to take care of them and that they are safe in your company.
- Express your own feelings of confusion, sadness, and fear, but do so in a way that shows you are relying on prayer and faith to cope during moments that you don’t understand.
- Provide structure for your students. Children find security in consistency, especially when faced with such unpredictable disasters. Reliance on traditional prayers and forms of prayer such as the Rosary can provide great comfort for children.
- Emphasize familiar routines and ritual.
- Play soothing music as the children work, and speak in a slow, calm, quiet voice.
- Invite (but do not pressure) children to talk about current events if they so wish. This gives them a sense of control and can help them to sort out their feelings.
- Provide a little more time than usual for children to relax, and do some activity that is therapeutic, such as coloring or playing with modeling clay. Older children can be engaged in physical activities (like a game) that provide some emotional release.
- Children feel powerless in the wake of unpredictable tragedies. Be sure to talk about and model peaceful resolutions to conflict as a way of giving children a sense of control in difficult situations.
- Some children may react to tragedies by behaving aggressively. Emphasize the need to find and use alternatives to violence as a way to solve conflicts.
- Keep your perspective, and avoid expressing anger and vindictive emotions about violent tragedies. Help young people to avoid making inappropriate assumptions by using labels based on ethnicity, religious background, etc.
- Young people may show signs of stress following tragedies and disasters. Keep an eye open for changes in behavior. Very young children may resort to thumb-sucking, clinging, and isolation from other children. Older children may show signs of irritability, aggression, lack of focus, and other changes in behavior. All of this is natural as they process their anxiety and fear, so show patience with them.
- Help children to mourn through prayerful ritual actions, such as lighting candles or ringing a bell for each victim of a tragedy.
- Pray together for the victims, their families, for those who were injured, and for first responders.
- Select and invite children to read, pray, and reflect on appropriate Bible verses that speak of comfort in times of sorrow.
Inspired by and adapted from “When Disaster Strikes: Helping Young Children Cope” by Jane M. Farish, an NAEYC (National Association for the Education of Young Children) brochure.
Engaging in Action to Protect Life
- Help children understand social justice as a “constitutive dimension” of preaching the Gospel.
- Talk about the Beatitudes and how being a peacemaker includes reducing violence.
- Read and discuss Cardinal Blase Cupich’s statement on the mass shooting in Uvalde.
- Read and discuss Pope Francis’s call to action to end the “indiscriminate trafficking of arms.”
- Read and discuss a list of reasonable measures that the USCCB supports to address the problem of gun violence.
- Encourage research on the effects of gun violence.
- Invite children and families to participate in a local or national March for Life with signs that focus on ending gun violence.
- Organize a gathering of families who have been affected by gun violence, and reserve empty spaces for those whose lives were cut short by guns.
- Invite children to write letters to Church leaders (pastors and bishops), encouraging them to preach about gun violence and the need for legislative action to help curb gun violence.
- Invite children to write letters to lawmakers encouraging them to take action to help curb gun violence.
- Help children recognize that gun control is not solely a political issue but is also a moral issue.
- Teach children that to be pro-life is to work to protect the sanctity of all human life from the moment of conception to the moment of natural death.
- Teach about non-violence and peacemaking, and look to the lives of the saints for examples.
- Read and discuss one Jesuit’s perspective on Catholic social thought and gun violence.
- Develop a Social Justice Week using these suggestions from the Ignatian Solidarity Network.
I might also add the importance, especially with pre-teens and teens, to alert the proper authorities when they see unusual behaviors in other kids or if they view threatening posts on social media.
It’s never too early to start talking with all kids about mental health and what good mental health looks like vs. poor mental health. When kids struggle with poor mental health, they tend to “cry out” to other kids first, so it’s important that kids know what to do if this happens and who to tell.
Lastly, if kids are old enough to write letters to lawmakers about curbing gun violence, they are also able to write letters promoting additional funding for mental health care in our country, which is greatly lacking.
Thanks, Laura, for advocating for more attention to be given to mental health!