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How to explain the Brooklyn subway attack to your kids

Reporter Halley Bondy’s daughter was forced into lockdown following the shooting in Sunset Park this week. That’s a tough situation for kids — but also their parents.
Image: Police at the scene of a shooting at 34th Street and 4th Avenue, Brooklyn, New York.
Police at the scene of a shooting at 34th Street and 4th Avenue, Brooklyn, New York on April 12, 2022.John Taggart / The Washington Post via Getty Images

My husband, daughter and I have been living in Sunset Park, Brooklyn for three years. I love the area for its restaurants, community vibe, diversity and family friendliness. But after Tuesday’s tragic subway shooting during the rush-hour commute, my neighborhood may be altered for a long time — if not forever.

That morning, I dropped off my 4-year-old daughter, Robin, at school with the usual goodbyes. A few minutes later, she would be in pre-K lockdown while I drove to my workspace — right next to a terrifying crime scene at the 36th Street R train station.

Reporter Halley Bondy with her daughter, after picking her up from school in Sunset Park, Brooklyn on Tuesday.
Reporter Halley Bondy with her daughter, after picking her up from school in Sunset Park, Brooklyn on Tuesday.Courtesy of Halley Bondy.

After initial reports of the shooting, my friends and family started to text me, telling me to leave the area immediately. Outside the subway station, I saw what seemed like hundreds of people running; one woman handed off a baby to an officer in a panic. Meanwhile, police officers and firefighters swarmed the area. I fought my way out of the fray and started offering people rides if they looked stuck or scared.

My mind, however, was on Robin, especially since the gunman was still on the loose. We got an alert from her school, and while I knew that her amazing teachers would keep her safe, I desperately wanted her by my side.

It obviously could have been much worse. Prosecutors allege suspect Frank James had a stockpile of weapons, and yet of the 10 people injured in the attack, all are expected to survive.

Citywide crime has increased dramatically throughout the pandemic, with a 16 percent increase in shooting incidents in March 2022 year over year. Across the country, gun murders increased 75 percent between 2010 and 2020. Yet, most parents still don’t know how to talk to their kids about gun violence when it happens — especially when we, the parents, are traumatized ourselves.

Sara Schwartz is a stay-at-home-mom who lives near the 25th Street R train stop. She said her kids, ages 4 and 6, also went on lockdown at their schools, located nearby. The students had practiced what to do in the event of a shooting, but this was their first real incident.

Schwartz said she sat on her living room floor for hours feeling worried, listening to helicopters flying overhead.

Sara Schwartz of Sunset Park, Brooklyn with her two daughters, ages 4 and 6.
Sara Schwartz of Sunset Park, Brooklyn with her two daughters, ages 4 and 6.Courtesy of Sara Schwartz

“You’re separated from your kids while all this craziness is going on, and you can’t communicate with them,” she told Know Your Value. Her older child said she'd heard someone talking about an explosion but wasn't sure what had happened. “I channeled Mr. Rogers and spoke about how there were officers helping those who were hurt,” Schwartz said. “They didn’t ask for more details. Had they asked, I wouldn’t know what to say.”

My 4-year-old, thankfully, seemed oblivious when I retrieved her from school. Her teachers had the wherewithal to make the lockdown feel like a normal day. Many young children tend to have no idea what’s happening, which is just fine, according to child psychologist Dr. Lawrence Balter.

“Little kids don't need to see the news. And with very small children, if they don't say anything to you, I wouldn't necessarily introduce the subject to them,” said Balter. “I’m all for honesty with kids, but there's no point in bringing up the details of a horrific crime. It’s pointless to make them worry about it.”

If young kids ask questions that demand an answer, parents should focus on making their children feel safe, according to psychologist Dr. Nekeshia Hammond.

“For the much younger crowd, the earlier elementary school crowd, they get the concept that there are people who don't make good decisions in the world. Start on that aspect, and say that we are doing our best to keep you safe,” said Hammond. “I think a lot of kids can be comforted in that, especially kids who may be more apt to have anxiety.”

But older kids may already be seeing images and videos on social media, which means adults need to help them process it, said Hammond.

“It is very important to validate their feelings, and to listen,” said Hammond. “It’s up to the parents if they need to see a mental health professional. Some warning signs might be that they’re afraid to go to school, their grades are suffering. But the older kids, the teenagers, are so advanced now, they’ve seen it all. They’re protesting, using their voices. With them, you should definitely be having those tougher conversations.”

“Then again, some of them don’t even seem to be affected by it at all, which is normal, too,” she added.

In general, it’s important to try to keep panic at bay when talking to kids about gun violence, even if it’s difficult.

“Your demeanor should be calm, even if it’s a little disingenuous,” said Balter. “It’s OK to be worried or to show your emotions but you don't want the kids to feel like they have to take care of you. You should convey that this is being taken care of. For example, you could tell an older child that ‘look, this was scary, but the guy was caught. That’s a good thing.’”

It is a miracle that nobody died on Tuesday, and that the children in our neighborhood were able to resume school. But some of us are forever changed. Many of my neighbors are rightfully shaken and afraid to ride the subway ever again. After this incident, Schwartz recommended that all parents come up with a plan for their kids, because it could happen anywhere.

“You always like to think it won't happen so close to home, but it can,” Schwartz said. “And as they get older and start traveling on their own, parents should have some sort of emergency plan for them if anything should happen. They should know what to do and where to go.”