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After a spate of violence in NYC, here’s expert advice on how to talk with kids

New York City street scene of businesses with police wearing yellow vests standing on the sidewalk and yellow tape blocking some access.

Police and emergency services gather at the scene of a shooting of multiple people outside the 36th Street subway station on April 12 in the Sunset Park neighborhood.

Pablo Monsalve / VIEWpress via Getty Images

In the terrifying moments after a gunman opened fire on a crowded subway train in Sunset Park, Brooklyn on Wednesday, schools nearby immediately went into lockdown.

Students sheltered in their classrooms, with news alerts pinging on cell phones and smart devices. When class let out, police lights still flickered in the streets. 

Among the 22 people wounded or injured in the attack, four were from ages 12 to 18, and though education department officials didn’t release names, they confirmed that some were public school students, according to reports.

The attack came on the heels of other high-profile gun violence across the city. Last week, 16-year-old Angellyh Yambo was killed a few blocks from her Bronx school, University Prep Charter High School, an unintended target as she walked home. Two other students were wounded. Last month, 12-year-old Kade Lewin was shot and killed as he sat in a car. He was remembered on Wednesday in a memorial service at his school, Brooklyn Science and Engineering Academy. 

New York City’s students have been through a lot lately. Chalkbeat spoke with Katie Peinovich, a social worker at the Child Mind Institute’s school and community program, who has helped New York City public schools implement trauma treatment interventions. 

Peinovich discussed how to talk to children about traumatic events like Tuesday’s shooting, what signs to look for if they need more support, and how to help those who might be scared of riding the subway.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What should parents and teachers be on the lookout for today and in the coming days in terms of whether this might be affecting their children?

If they notice that kids seem more on edge or they’re experiencing what we call hypervigilance, which is when their fight-or-flight mechanism can be activated by an event like this. So kids may have a more heightened startle response. They may seem more irritable. They may be reluctant to separate from caregivers, things like that. Those kinds of behaviors — even if kids aren’t outwardly saying that they’re frightened or expressing fear — can be an indication, particularly if you see sudden changes in those kinds of things. 

If parents and teachers are noticing those kinds of behaviors, what should they do to support their children?

The first thing is to acknowledge and to validate their feelings that what happened was very, very scary. The ongoing news coverage for our youngest kids — preschoolers and early elementary kids — can give an impression to those kids that this is an ongoing situation. It’s really important for parents and for schools to limit media coverage and to reassure children that this very scary event is now over, and that they are currently safe. 

We think we don’t want to overwhelm children by giving them too much information. But it’s important for them to have a picture, an honest description of what happened — but not too much information that might be overwhelming for them. 

Head photo of a smiling woman

Katie Peinovich

Courtesy of Katie Peinovich

Once parents have acknowledged the facts and validated their kids’ feelings, then they can ask questions: What do you know? What are you worried about? Can you tell me what you’ve been hearing or what your thoughts are? 

This gives parents a chance to, first of all, correct any misinformation. It also gives them the chance to respond directly to the child’s concern. It can be hard to guess exactly what kids are concerned about, even for parents who feel like they know their kids very well. So it’s best to ask questions.

Are there things that parents, teachers and educators should not be doing or saying right now?

Kids will respond first and foremost to the emotion behind what teachers or parents are telling them. They’re going to absorb the emotion before they process what adults are actually saying. So it is really important that when teachers, parents, school administrators are feeling upset themselves — which is also completely understandable — that it’s not the best time to have a conversation with a child about what happened. 

Are there any other things that you think parents and educators should have in mind right now?

Maintaining routines can be very helpful. So for kids who are used to going to an art class at a certain time, and then to lunch, and to recess — I think we can make some adjustments within those schedules, but maintaining routines is very, very important. Having kids go into schools and sit around in classes where they’re not doing their work because everybody’s preoccupied,  that can heighten their sense of anxiety. 

What about longer term? People might have different timelines with how they process things. What should people be cognizant of?

Most kids in the wake of a traumatic event will achieve what we call natural recovery. In about four weeks, most kids will return to their previous level of functioning. 

Within the next couple of weeks, if parents are noticing  kids are having nightmares or there’s something that they feel scared of, and they’re still asking for other reassurance around their safety, that’s normal. 

Once you get to four weeks, if kids are still struggling, that’s when we might want to look into getting some extra support or extra help. 

What about specific anxiety around the subway? Do you have specific tips for kids, or even adults, who might not want to get on the subway?

In the first couple of days, I totally get that people are not going to want to get on the train, and that it feels scary. And they might want to find other ways of getting around the city, if they can — maybe taking buses, maybe walking a little bit more. But ultimately, it’s really important to remember that as scary as these kinds of events are, they’re actually pretty rare. 

If kids are having a hard time with getting back on the train, parents can break that subway ride into smaller steps. So maybe the first day it’s going to the subway station and standing outside, maybe even walking down the steps. And then standing on the platform. Getting on the train and riding one stop. It takes some time to do this kind of gradual exposure. The child might not feel ready to get back on the train for half an hour, but maybe they can tolerate riding one stop. When nothing happens, that’ll kind of make them feel a little more comfortable and they can work their way up to that full ride. 

There’s been a number of other violent incidents involving young people, including the shooting and killing of a 16-year-old walking home from school and a 12-year-old sitting in a car. Are there any specific tips for people who have witnessed violence, or for people who are just worried?

It’s really a very tricky time. There’s no denying that bad things do happen. At the same time, while we hear a lot about them — and we do because they’re shocking and because there’s a lot of media coverage — most people still make their way around the city safely, without incident, every single day. For adults, we can remind ourselves of that and remind our children of that, and point out all of the things that keep us safe as we move around the city.

I think for people who witnessed something, it’s about psychological first aid: reassuring them about their current safety, checking in on how they’re doing, and if they’re still struggling, then looking into getting more support or possible treatment.

One of the major protective factors for children against trauma is a relationship with a trusted adult. That doesn’t have to be an adult who’s a therapist or who is an expert in mental health. That can actually be really, really helpful and protective for kids from experiencing trauma.

Christina Veiga is a reporter covering New York City schools with a focus on school diversity and preschool. Contact Christina at cveiga@chalkbeat.org.