Apodaca: Parents need to talk to kids in wake of shooting

My sons attended a midnight screening of "The Dark Knight Rises."

For many months, my 17-year-old in particular had excitedly anticipated the film, buying his ticket weeks in advance.

He joined a large group of friends to camp out at Big Newport more than a day before the movie's debut, returning home on occasion to shower and pick up board games.

I'd drive by the theater from time to time to check up on the kids. I found the scene to be spirited and playful. A few tossed balls around to kill time; some wore costumes.

It was a happy scene.

Part way through the screening, a technical glitch in the sound system surfaced, and it soon became apparent to theater management that the problem couldn't be resolved quickly. The disappointed audience members were issued vouchers to return another time.

Later that morning, we heard the news that a masked shooter had gunned down moviegoers at another midnight showing in Colorado. Suddenly, my sons' frustrations over their suspended screening faded to insignificance.

For me as a parent, it was another heartbreaking reminder that inexplicable horror can occur any time, anywhere.

We do everything we can to keep our kids safe. We slather on the sunscreen, teach them to look both ways before crossing and practice numerous scenarios for dealings with strangers. We monitor their friendships, check their breath, and say silent prayers each time they walk out the door.

Yet the cold reality is that we can never shield our children from all the bad in the world, and that is the bane of our existence.

We can argue over gun laws, violence in the media and even whether moviegoers should be restricted from wearing costumes.

Nevertheless, danger will always exist, sometimes in the most unexpected places, and that is the ever-present curse, the evil twin to parenthood's abundant joy.

So how do we keep fear from overtaking us at times like this? How do we navigate that fine line between conscientious parenting and counterproductive hovering? And how do we know if our kids are harboring their own deep-seated stress related to the knowledge that tragedy can strike at any random moment?

I put those questions to Jerry Weichman, the Newport Beach psychologist who has made it his life's work to help youths and their families cope in a complex and confusing world.

Like my sons, many of Weichman's clients had been looking forward to the "Dark Knight" for weeks.

"All the kids were excited about it, male and female," he said. "This was a big deal for them."

Though their reactions to the shootings varied, Weichman said, the fact that the massacre was connected to what was, in their eyes, a huge event "factored into feelings that, 'Oh, my gosh, it could have been me.'"

When Weichman contacted some kids to ascertain their feelings about the tragedy, some told him that they had even figured out what scene might have been playing when the rampage began. Adding to their stress, he said, is the realization that we might never make sense of what happened.

The most important step parents can take at a time like this, Weichman advised, is to communicate.

"Taking time to listen to your kids is really important. We take a lot of time to lecture," he said. "But listening helps them get it off their chest and gives parents a window into how they're thinking."

In general, children younger than 8 should be protected as much as possible from details about the events in Colorado. If they have questions or concerns, Weichman said, it's best to keep the descriptions of the scene limited, and to assure them it was an isolated incident.

But by the time kids are in middle school, he said, they're going to have a great awareness of such big, media-saturated stories, and it's vital to address their feelings. It's also crucial that parents not imprint their own anxieties onto their kids; even teenagers still take their cues from Mom and Dad.

Also take time to reflect with kids about the victims and their families, Weichman advised. "Talk about the importance of living life, and seizing the day."

The biggest mistake parents can make, he said, is to try to protect children from life's most difficult challenges.

"One of the best things we can do for our kids is expose them to the not-so-great aspects of life," Weichman said. "You've got to let kids be in the environment and make mistakes. That's how they learn."

Sometimes that means encouraging kids to confront the very things they fear, Weichman said.

I read reports last week that officials in Colorado were urging the public to continue going to the movies as a show of resolve. Many responded, including a couple who survived the shootings. They told reporters that they returned to see "Dark Knight" in part to prove to themselves that they could do it.

They faced their fear, and that's an example that parents and children alike would do well to follow.

PATRICE APODACA is a Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She is also a regular contributor to Orange Coast magazine. She lives in Newport Beach.

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