Grim images of gun incidents spanning from the Newtown, Conn. massacre to the violent slaughter in a Colorado movie theater have a negative effect in young children, a Lucile Packard Children's Hospital psychiatrist said.
But if parents can't shield their children from the grim realities of these events, there are ways they can communicate in age-appropriate ways to help children handle the disturbing news.
Dr. Victor Carrion, a child and adolescent psychiatrist and director of the Stanford Early Life Stress Research Program, has conducted extensive research on childhood trauma. In a recent Q&A released by the hospital, Carrion spoke about how to help children process traumatic news.
Carrion said there are potential short-term psychological effects on school-age children hearing or seeing information about mass shootings, which include becoming concerned about their own safety. If they are very young, such as preschoolers and first- and second-graders, they may even be concerned about the safety of their family.
"Children can also be concerned about who will be taking care of them, or wonder if the tragedy that has happened will happen again. In addition, children who are closer in terms of proximity to the event will be at increased risk for symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder," he said.
But because the images in the media are now so prevalent and vivid, the psychological effect on the child can be the same as if the child was at the scene of the gun incident, he added.
"We must protect children by limiting their exposure to these images. If the child is 3 or 4 years old -- and there is no chance of them hearing about a recent gun incident -- then there is no need to discuss it with them. You only need to talk about it if you think your child will hear about it," he said.
But there are long-term psychological impacts as well. Some children's academic and social life will be affected if they are not treated through an assessment and therapy, he said. Common symptoms can include difficulty paying attention, trouble managing emotional responses and problems with memory.
"We call the ability to organize, make decisions and manage emotional responses 'executive function,' and this skill set could be impaired if a child witnesses or hears about a gun incident. Post-traumatic stress disorder is a particular danger for children who live in volatile environments. They will develop the disorder more quickly if a violent gun event occurs near them," he said.
Early warning signs of childhood trauma for parents to watch for include irritability, a greater susceptibility to crying, and difficulty with sleep. These symptoms that should raise a red flag if they persist longer than a month, he said. Younger children may become clingier and experience nightmares and distressing or bad dreams.
"Children may regress in some behaviors, such as bed wetting or sucking their thumb, and you may hear them complaining more about a stomachache or headache. Some children, when they get older, may withdraw and become more isolated and may potentially stop enjoying things that they used to," he said.
The younger the child, the more they are at risk, he added. Physiologically, young children's minds are more fragile. But adolescence is a critical period, just like early childhood. Teens are still vulnerable.
"People used to think that children -- by virtue of being children -- are more resilient, but there is no medical basis for that in neuroscience or psychological research," he said.
When parents talk to children about these disturbing events, they should encourage discussion with their children, but not force it, Carrion said.
"Let your kids know that the conversation is welcome but that if the child doesn't want to, don't make them. Don't force bravery. Let them know that it's okay to be fearful or angry or sad -- that it's okay for them to have their reaction.
"It's also very important to assure young children of their safety. If that is one of their concerns, then it is important to give the message, 'You are protected. You are safe,'" he said.
"In the event you notice warning signs in your children's behavior, I would recommend taking them to their pediatrician or mental health specialist to obtain a consultation."