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How To Talk With Kids About Violent Attacks In The News


I just want to tell you about one El Paso mom we met yesterday. Her name is Bethany Mata. She and her husband were ready to leave the house with their two kids on Saturday morning. They were getting ready to go to the movies. And that's when news broke of this massacre nearby at a Walmart. Bethany stayed home with her 6-year-old son, Josiah (ph), and her 3-year-old daughter, Annalise (ph).

BETHANY MATA: Just trying to keep the TV off, trying to keep the radio off, keep everything in a sense of normalcy for my kids.

GREENE: You didn't want them to hear anything?

MATA: I didn't want them to hear any of it. I didn't want them to know that there was panic, that there was violence in their city. But in my mind I was thinking, oh, my God, no - not El Paso.

GREENE: Now, this mom is facing something so many parents are. When and how do you tell young children about an act of violence in their community or beyond? Bethany is an El Paso native. She works as a dietitian. Her husband is a detective, and he had to rush to Walmart to respond to the shooting. And while he was there, Bethany was distracting the kids. She was building a dollhouse with them. But she also knew they would have to figure out what to tell them.

MATA: We needed to come up with a plan that we were both comfortable with and how exactly we were going to word it. And it wasn't until this morning as we were getting him ready for the day, and we were both in the bathroom with Josiah. And, you know, Dad was coming his hair. And we said, you know - my husband started out.

He said, you know, I - I'm sorry for not being here on Saturday. But I had to go and help out. There was a man that was doing some bad things to people here in town, and that's the reason why Daddy had to leave. And we asked him if he had any questions. And he said, OK, no. So we just kind of kept it as simple as possible but just reassuring him that everything was going to be OK and the bad guy was caught. That was our 6-year-old, Josiah.

GREENE: And then what about your 3-year-old daughter? What...

MATA: Annalise, we feel like she's still in her own world.

GREENE: You almost smiled a little bit, like it was an emotion there.

MATA: Well, I mean, you want to preserve that innocence - right? - as long as you can. Just knowing that she doesn't have that fear - she doesn't have that insecurity - and knowing that that can be taken away in an instant, you don't want that as a parent. You want to preserve that innocence as long as you can, I mean, even from - for Josiah, for the 6-year-old, as long as you can, you know? You want to shield them from as much as you can.

GREENE: I want to talk this through more with Dr. David Schonfeld. He's a pediatrician and directs the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement at the University of Southern California. And he works with communities after mass shootings, particularly how to talk to children.

Dr. Schonfeld, welcome to the program.

DAVID SCHONFELD: Thanks for having me.

GREENE: You know, I told the mom we just heard from that I was going to be talking to you this morning. And she - her eyes sort of lit up because she was curious if you were going to think that she did the right thing coming up with a plan to tell her 6-year-old what had taken place at Walmart. What did you think?

SCHONFELD: I think she handled that delicate balance between both trying to shield her children as well as making sure that they understood. So I understand the hesitancy. Clearly she loves her kids and is trying to do best by them. But I also think she made the right decision, which was to raise that information, to start that conversation, because the last thing you want is for your children to find out about this from someone else and for them to think that either you will not or don't feel able to tell them important things.

GREENE: Oh, so it's a matter of trust. Like, if they find out something painful or shocking happened, and your parent didn't tell them, suddenly you're like, I don't feel protected by my parents because they didn't tell me this thing.

SCHONFELD: Well, you know, I remember when 9/11 happened, my youngest daughter was in fourth grade. And she was attending a K-4 school. And so the school decided not to tell the children anything happened. So they blocked all incoming information. And actually, she didn't find out until after school when she was home alone with her older sister, who had heard about it in school. And, you know, we were in a community that was deeply impacted. Her friend's mother commuted to the World Trade Center. So this was - that was the reason why the school didn't know what to say because it was so impacted.

And when I spoke to my daughter when I got home, she looked at me. And she said, you know, I knew something was going on because all the adults were hugging each other, but I didn't know what it was. And that's very frightening for a child. And then she looked at me. And she said, I guess they aren't comfortable talking about it. I will never talk about it in school.


SCHONFELD: And, you know, I said to her - her teacher was wonderful. The school was wonderful. They actually had me come speak to the teachers the next morning before school. And they had conversations in the classroom. But she made the decision that she would never make those adults uncomfortable by bringing this topic up again.

GREENE: You know, your schedule is so telling. As I understand it, you're in Parkland, Fla., now, where of course there was the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas. You're en route to Las Vegas, where there was the massacre at a country music festival. I mean, the list of communities just keeps growing. Are you seeing common themes?

SCHONFELD: Well, I think we're seeing the same themes across the country, that a lot of these are situations where there is mass violence, where the victims are - you know, the numbers are increasing. And people are questioning why and feeling very helpless and hopeless. And, you know, I meet with the victims sometimes and their families and obviously the schools and communities. And as you could just see, the principal talking in El Paso was deeply affected by this. So I'm seeing increasingly communities are recognizing the impact of these events but not knowing what to do about them.

GREENE: Is your job or your message to parents changing as we see these events? For example, we saw three in the last 10 days or so. Like, if they happen more routinely, does that change what advice you give?

SCHONFELD: Well, one of the things which I am trying to convey to people is there's - I've heard some people say that this is our new normal, and we have to accept it. And the message I'm delivering is there's nothing normal about this. And as soon as we call it normal or say that, you know, this is our new reality, it means somehow we don't have to do anything about it. And I think we do have to do something about it. And that's one of the messages that I try to deliver. But my message is really around recovery from these events. But I also think we have to have some efforts to reduce their incidence.


GREENE: Dr. David Schoenfeld directs the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement. Really appreciate talking to you.

SCHONFELD: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.
Taylor Haney is a producer and director for NPR's Morning Edition and Up First.