Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Shooting in Pittsfield Township: What Do You Tell the Kids?

This morning at about 8:30, a man was shot in the driveway of a home in a quiet subdivision of Pittsfield Township, the township right next to Ann Arbor, Michigan.  He was shot by a resident of the house whose driveway it was, and it is not at all clear what led to the shooting.  The resident then went inside and called 911 himself.

In a town like Ann Arbor, where murders happen once or twice a year, this is big news.  It is especially big news because about 20 children were standing at the bus stop adjacent to the house when the shooting happened.  All of them heard the shots, and some of them witnessed the shooting.

We can probably all agree that children shouldn't see things like that.  We can also imagine that we ourselves would be shaken by witnessing such an incident, and it is that much worse for children.  So what do you tell them?  How do you assure children they are safe when their neighborhood is a murder scene and their neighbor is the shooter?

First of all, here's what you don't say.  You don't say, "don't worry about it."  They are already worried about it.  Telling them not to worry really tells them that you don't want to talk about it, and while that might be the case it is not what they need right now. 

What you do tell them is that yes, this was scary.  Yes, you understand they are upset.  And then you offer them some perspective.  These two men knew each other.  No one is going around the neighborhood shooting -- this was a problem between those two people and only those two people.  You remind them that the man who did the shooting is in jail until this gets sorted out.  You tell them this is rare -- this has never happened before.  That might seem obvious, but kids don't have a good sense of what is likely as opposed to what is possible.  You let them draw while they talk -- it has a way of getting tongues moving.  You let them sleep in your room for a night or two if they want to.  This is an OK time for them to regress, and it's not permanent.  You keep their day as normal as you can.

At my school, we connected with this incident in a slightly different way.  Three of our families live in the next subdivision over, maybe 600 feet from where the shooting occurred.  One parent heard the shots.  Their children were at school when the shooting happened.  One of them asked me today, should she tell her children?

The answer to this, like the answers to most tricky questions, is that it depends.  My advice was that if they were likely to hear about it from someone else, then yes, you should tell them.  If they see police cars or helicopters or reports and ask what's going on, you should tell them.  If you yourself are upset enough about it that you're going to be talking a lot about it behind closed doors, you should tell them because they are going to know something is going on and feel like it's not OK to ask, and what they imagine is much worse than what actually happened.  If none of those things are true, you probably don't need to tell them.  If none of those things are true, then this isn't any different than a crime across town or across the country.  And as with all things in parenting, you play it by ear.  This isn't a science, it's an art.

Note:  Because it is not clear how this incident transpired and whether there was any element of self-defense involved, I have chosen not to name either the shooter or the person who was shot, in keeping with this blog's policy not to name perpetrators.


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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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