Parents should be prepared to talk to their children about school shootings. Here are tips on how.
The more things change, the more they stay the same, the saying goes. In January 2021, I wrote a column called “Telling Your Kids About Recent Mob Violence.” The recent tragedies in Uvalde, Texas, and several other states give us the sad opportunity to write this piece again. I need to redirect the suggestions I’ve gathered over my 30+ years of teaching how to talk to your kids about scary things. I wish we didn’t have to continually rewrite such advice.
School shootings, something that once seemed unthinkable, now occur with some regularity. A devastating reality of raising children in America today is that parents must be prepared to tell their children about the mass murders. Here are some suggestions on how to approach the subject.
Let your child’s questions guide the conversation. The best way to determine how much information children need is to listen to them. They often ask, who is to blame? What could have been done to avoid this horrible situation? Could this happen in my school? Truthful answers help build trust. Unfortunately, you must state that while school is generally a safe place, there are risks.
In the days and weeks after a tragedy, parents should talk to their children about how to cope when they feel worried or anxious. Remember that less is more. A child may think we are at war because he saw armed guards on television. Explain that these people work to keep everyone safe. Always keep your answers basic and at your child’s developmental level.
To reassure. Children are often concerned about their personal safety and that of their families. How they react to the various news stories and questions that arise will give you an idea of their specific concerns. You can offer reassurance such as, “We’re all safe.” You can’t promise that their school will never have a shooting, but you can honestly communicate that school shootings are, in fact, very rare. Remind them that they have protocols and drills at school to keep them safe. Avoid graphic details. Do your best to actively listen, rather than trying to take the pain away from the children.
I recommend the book “Once I Was Very Very Scared”, by Chandra Ghosh Ippen, for the preschool set. In the story, many animals have scary experiences, but each reacts differently and has their own way of coping. Parents of older children can Google “Helping Students After a School Shooting” for a list of resources from the American School Counselor Association. Parents are sometimes afraid to bring up school shootings with their children because they don’t want to scare them. But children often hear about a school shooting from friends and the media. So talking about it can actually ease any anxiety they might be feeling. Avoiding potentially scary topics can make them scarier for children.
It will take time for parents to comfort children and help them cope with such tragic events. We must be patient. Sometimes, especially with young children, we have to have these conversations over and over again. Proceed in small pieces. They might not be able to digest everything in one sitting.
For young children, limit screen time to non-news programs. Also, the younger the child, the more likely they are to see each show as a new attack. Many children saw the broadcast of the 9/11 plane crashes as “hundreds of planes crashing over and over.” School shootings are horrific, frightening and important. Thus, they dominate the media. As a result, we can consider them a much bigger threat than they really are. The more we observe them, the more our mind creates the likelihood of them happening.
Statistically, school shootings are actually not very common. So while they are a threat, the likelihood of any of us personally affecting any of us individually is slim. Some anxiety is warranted; debilitating anxiety is not. If you feel like you’re more anxious than you should be, a good first step is always to take a break from any media that might be focusing your attention in an unhealthy direction. Learn and understand some coping strategies on your own, then help your child understand their emotions. But if you’re just watching the same coverage over and over again and it doesn’t offer anything new that’s important to your family, then tune out.
Anxiety is supposed to prepare us for action, so channel the worries you feel into something proactive you can do. To paint. Write poetry. Volunteer in the community. Donate to relevant causes. Stick to routines. The unpredictable is frightening for children, and a predictable routine is especially reassuring when children are frightened or uncertain. Even if children are anxious or fearful, there is a benefit to going to school and continuing with daily activities.
Finally, create a strong community. In any time of turmoil or crisis, bringing friends and family together provides much-needed support for adults and children alike. Having more people also means you will have more resources to share with your children.
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