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Virginia Beach Mass Shooting Anniversary: Helping Children Cope

Author: Mary Margaret Gleason, MD
Published Date: Thursday, May 28, 2020

By: Dr. Mary Margaret Gleason, Psychiatry and Psychology

The first anniversary of the mass shooting in Virginia Beach is bound to bring back painful memories for many in our community.

We shouldn’t forget that children may also be struggling with emotions, particularly with the added complication of its arrival in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dr. Mary Margaret Gleason, a pediatrician, child and adolescent psychiatrist, and vice chief of the CHKD mental health program, offers some insight on how to help children cope.

How can we talk with children about the mass shooting in Virginia Beach?

Talk to your child using words and concepts that match their development and age. Because it’s been a year, many children will have had time to process the event. Stories in the media and memorials may prompt new questions.

One of the most important things to remind children is that mass shootings are incredibly rare. Last year, we were inundated with media coverage and conversations to make sense of the event. For some kids, that can make it feel like it happens more frequently than it does.

Remind children of the things that have happened since then to keep us all safe. Leaders have thought hard about restricting access to public buildings and made plans for safety. The state has also taken steps to confirm that people buying guns are more likely to use them safely.

The big question of “Why?” is almost never answered to anyone’s satisfaction. For older children, it can be a life lesson about the challenges of having unanswerable questions in the world. Younger children may have new questions because they are a year older. They may ask questions about death and dying or their safety. Telling them the truth, but not necessarily the whole truth, is the rule of thumb. Parents can share their own family or cultural beliefs, acknowledging that these are complicated questions, and no one has all the answers.

What are some ways we can help our children cope with memories?

Asking a child what they are wondering about can invite a conversation. Even if the topic is hard for a parent, it’s important for a child to know it’s okay to talk about.

It can be reassuring for children to know that it’s common to have strong feelings and memories. Parents can also encourage them to try deep breathing, taking a walk, or listening to music if they are feeling sad. Connecting with friends and family by phone or video can also be helpful.

Don’t promise things we can’t predict, like “we know it won’t happen again.” It also doesn’t help to blame groups of people for the event, suggesting that there is a role for retaliation outside of the justice system.

Since people can’t mark the anniversary with an in-person memorial, what can they do?

Mark it together as a family or join with other loved ones in a video chat or a virtual ceremony.

Take a moment to mark it with a meaningful ritual, like a prayer, lighting a candle, remembering a loved one, creating a sign or a wreath, or planting a tree.

Remind each other that you are there for one another.

Older children can engage in advocacy activities around community safety, like writing letters to their representatives about ideas they have to keep communities safe.

What are common reactions for children?

Common reactions for an anniversary depend on how connected the child felt to the event last year and how it may have influenced their life.

Some children might experience mood swings, irritability, extra worries, and even sleep difficulties for a few days.

Red flags include talking about sadness, depression, self-harm, retaliation or harm to others, or anxiety that interferes with going outside or participating in family routines.

Any child who has had persistent symptoms since last year or whose response to the anniversary doesn’t lessen in a few days should be seen by their pediatrician or a mental health provider.

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About Mary Margaret Gleason, MD

About Mary Margaret  Gleason, MD Dr. Mary Margaret Gleason is a pediatrician and child psychiatrist at CHKD. She is interested in mental health promotion and creating collaborative systems of care that support early intervention and timely access to quality mental health care. A recent transplant from New Orleans, she is thrilled to join the mental health team at CHKD as the vice chief of its growing mental health program. She is also the division director of child and adolescent psychiatry at Eastern Virginia Medical School. Dr. Gleason looks forward to sharing her background in leading residency training programs, early childhood mental health, and developing clinical and research programs to enhance CHKD’s new mental health initiatives.