Batman, Kids and Aurora: How to Talk to Children About the Colorado Movie Theater Shooting

Experts share tips on how to reassure children following the shooting.

July 20, 2012, 2:27 PM

July 20, 2012 — -- Hours after the horrific shooting during a midnight screening of "The Dark Knight Rises" at a Colorado movie theater, Melissa Lawrence's young children were on their way to camp, happily oblivious to the tragedy.

They won't stay that way for long. Lawrence said she plans on sitting down her 7- and 8-year-old sons this evening to gently and simply explain to them what happened at an Aurora, Colo., theater hundreds of miles away from their New York home.

"I'll explain that unfortunately these people went to this movie, thinking they were going to enjoy it, and a very ill person came in and did this horrible thing. ... No one expected it to happen in this way," said Lawrence, 42, who wrote about the issue on her parenting how-to video site, "I'm not going to lie about it, but I'm not going to go into every detail."

Watch the full story on a "Tragedy in Colorado: Movie Theater Massacre" tonight on a special "20/20" at 10 p.m. ET.

Today, parents across the country are struggling with how to talk to their kids in the aftermath of a tragedy that killed and injured both adults and children. Experts generally agree that after such a tragedy, parents should keep their answers simple, leaving out dramatic details, while reassuring their children of their safety.

But there's more to it than that.

Like other massacres, the injuries and the deaths associated with it are nearly incomprehensible. But unlike other shootings, the fact that it happened during the viewing of a movie -- the third in director Christopher Nolan's popular Batman film franchise -- anticipated by kids and teenagers everywhere may make it feel frighteningly close to home.

"For weeks, I've had kids in my practice talking about how excited they are for the premiere, planning dates with friends, weeks in advance of the premiere for the movie," said Dr. Jerry Weichman, an adolescent psychologist and parenting expert in California. Now those same kids and others may be at risk of developing phobias of theaters that could last for weeks or months, he said.

A shooting during the showing of any movie, Weichman said, could have the same effect -- but "the fact that it was Batman takes it up a notch for them."

New York mom Lawrence said she doesn't plan to tell her sons that the shooting happened during the Batman movie, which the boys are excited to see.

"I think it's going to scare them, and it's not going to help them understand this tragedy," she said.

Not everyone agrees that the Batman factor is important.

"Kids aren't going to be associating this with Batman. It's going to be the trauma of the whole thing," said Alan Kazdin, a professor of psychology and child psychiatry at Yale University, and the director of the Yale Parenting Center.

Kazdin said that young children, in particular, will be much more affected by the dramatic visuals associated with the shooting, such as police cars outside the theater, than by any ties to "The Dark Knight."

Kazdin recommends shielding children from media reports on the shooting to reduce the risk of "secondary terrorism" -- a phenomenon witnessed in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

"There were children who had nothing to do with 9/11 but saw endlessly [reports about it] in the media and some developed traumatic reactions," Kazdin explained. "Such exposure can really have enormous impact."

When a child does show signs of being upset by the tragedy, parents should still plan to return with them to the movies eventually, some experts say.

"Anxious, shy, inhibited kids may need to stay back a few days or weeks. Others may want to go and feel better with friends or family. Teens as well may want to hold off or go with others. I would tend to base the decision on going on how anxious, worried and upset the child is," said Dr. Gene Beresin, director of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Residency Training at Massachusetts General Hospital and McLean Hospital. "Frankly, if you keep them away for too long, they may develop a phobia of movies. While we don't want to push them, we do not want to give them the message that movies are dangerous places. They are not!"

On the next page, find more tips from parenting experts on the best ways to address the Colorado shooting with your children:

Watch for Trauma: "Young children may have difficulties identifying and expressing feelings. Parents should pay attention to the children's play (for instance, preoccupation with certain aggressive electronic games, drawings, repetitive play that imitates the traumatic event or events). Another sign of trauma is avoidance of reminders (in this case, going to the movies or to a show or watching certain movies or avoiding other activities that they didn't avoid before)."-- Dr. Aurelia Bizamcer, Medical Director, Outpatient Psychiatry at Temple University Hospital

Keep Answers Truthful but Simple: "We're not holding back, but we're not giving more because the giving more could have the risk ofalarming the child. ... As a parent you have an obligation to protect a young child from being overwhelmed."--Alan Kazdin, Professor of Psychology and Child Psychiatry at Yale University; Director of the Yale Parenting Center.

Reassure Them: "We need to appreciate that kids have different fears. Many will worry about the movies, but others will worry about such events spilling over to other areas, such as the mall, school, the neighborhood. For kids of all ages, it is really important to let them know that these kinds of events are incredibly rare. Movie theaters are very safe places. Just think of all the movies you, mom and dad and everyone has gone to. Things like this really do not happen much at all."--Dr. Gene Beresin, Director of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Residency Training, Massachusetts General Hospital and McLean Hospital

Keep Answers Age-Appropriate: "Parents should be sure to pitch the discussion to their kids' developmental level ? for a 6-year-old, it's completely appropriate to reassure them of their safety, with some emphasis on the fact that police have caught the person they think did this, and he is no longer at large. For kids over the age of 8, more concrete details are appropriate, along with, perhaps, a general discussion of how to be safe in public -- locating exit doors for instance, and getting to safety in the event of any dangerous occurrence."--Jay Reeve,President and Chief Executive Officer, Apalachee Center

Don't Make Assumptions: "Don't project your own feelings, fears and anxietyon kids because you know you don't really know exactly what your kids are feeling until you talk to them."--Dr. Jane Taylor, psychiatrist

Here are sample answers and tactics meant to reassure children of specific ages, courtesy of Dr. Anand Pandya, co-founder of the Disaster Psychiatry Outreach Center and an associate professor of psychiatry at UCLA:

Preschool Age:"Something bad happened, but we're going to keep you safe."

School-Age Children: "These things almost never happen. Shootings are extremely rare, and there may be an individual who is sick or who has problems who did this."

Teenagers: Teenagers will be watching the news reports with or without their parents. Engage in a conversation with them. Ask your teenager, "What do you think we should do?" This may strike up a conversation about gun safety or regulations. Again, remind them that this is rare. If they do want to go to the movies, reinforce safety routines.

Read how moms are grappling with talking to their kids about the tragedy at's Roadside Assistance and Babble Kids blogs.

Watch the full story on a "Tragedy in Colorado: Movie Theater Massacre" tonight on a special "20/20" at 10 p.m. ET.

Drs. Laurie Handwerker and Stacey Schott of the ABC News' Medical Unit contributed to this report.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events