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How to talk to your child about school shootings




March 28, 2023

Rage. Anguish. Terror. Perhaps, even numbness are all feelings that arise, and that’s just you––an adult with fully developed executive functioning skills and decades of experience and knowledge to process such tragedy. Unfortunately, our children and teens are left with the same feelings without the emotional coping skills to support their worry, frustration, anxiety, and fear. This is where you, the parent, come in. 

School shootings profoundly impact children, both those who experience them firsthand and those who hear about them through the media. Situations like this can cause fear, anxiety, and trauma, leading to long-term emotional and psychological effects. As caregivers, it's important to recognize the impact of these events on children and provide them with the support and resources they need to cope and heal. 

There is no easy way to talk to your children about senseless violent acts. It takes a lot of courage, precise language, and a whole lot of hugs. To help, here are some clinically-based talking points and scripts to use in your conversations:

Keep it age appropriate

Make sure the information you share with your child is age appropriate to their level of understanding. A younger child does not need to know about the specifics of a school shooting, but your older child may require more details about the event. For an older teen, this can be an opportunity to teach media literacy skills by helping them research factual news about the event.

Keep it real

Tell your child the truth about what has happened but do not provide too much graphic detail. Be prepared to answer any questions your child may have.

Keep it short

Turn off the TV and refrain from having the events on loop in places where little ears can repeatedly be exposed to media sensationalism.

Keep it comforting

Remind your child that they are safe and you are there to protect them. Explain that these events are rare, and there are adults who are working hard to keep them safe. Chances are their school has discussed what to do in a “code red,” so it is okay to remind them that there are things they can do in such situations.

Try to offer extra hugs and comfort, even if you think they’re not affected. Likewise, allow kids to be close to you if they feel insecure or unsafe.

Keep them talking

Encourage your child to talk, talk and talk. Encourage them to ask questions and express their feelings. Listen carefully to what they have to say and validate their emotions.

If your child is very young and/or unable to communicate their feelings try using art. Drawing or painting can be a helpful way for young children to express their emotions and talk about their feelings in traumatic situations. You can encourage them to draw pictures or create art showing their feelings.

Talk about coping strategies. Discuss ways your child can cope with their emotions and feelings of fear. Suggest they talk to a trusted adult or counselor if they feel overwhelmed. 

It is okay if a child doesn't want to talk about their feelings. There is no one correct way to deal with difficult events and complex feelings. Every child processes information differently; some need more time and space to feel comfortable. Respect their boundaries and don't force a topic on them that they are not ready to discuss. 

Keep the whole family involved

Focus on positive actions. Discuss positive steps your family can take to prevent future school shootings, such as advocating for gun control measures or supporting mental health resources. The overall goal is to provide support and reassurance to the child, and pushing them to discuss may cause more harm than good. 

Keep to the script

Sometimes it can be difficult to know what to say in the moment. When you do have the words, try writing them down so that when your child or teen comes to you with questions or concerns, you’ll be more prepared. They can be facts you researched, comforting words you want them to hear, or helpful mantras to say as a family. Here are some examples to help get you started.

Scenario #1

If your child doesn't want to go to school after a school shooting, listening to their concerns and validating their feelings is important. To ease their fear, try saying something like:

“I feel you may be uneasy about going to school after what happened, and it’s totally normal to feel that way. Let’s work together to find ways to help you feel safer while at school."

Next, lead the discussion to options to help them feel safe such as learning about the school's safety measures or identifying a trusted teacher they can talk to if they feel unsafe. You can also practice coping strategies with them, such as deep breathing or mindfulness exercises, to help them manage their anxiety.

Scenario #2

For a younger child who is suddenly afraid of being away from you after hearing of a school shooting, you might say: 

“I understand that you have heard some scary things about school that have made you feel afraid. It’s okay to feel that way, but I want you to know you are safe with me. Let’s work together to find ways to help you feel safer and more comfortable.”

“I see you are worried about being away from us right now, which is okay. We all get big feelings like fear when bad things happen. Let’s talk about all of the ways your school is keeping you safe.”  

“How about you take this picture of our family with you when you go to school? You can tuck it into your backpack and get it out when you feel afraid.”

If your child’s school allows, walk them to their classroom the next few days and give them a few extra hugs to remind them you care and that you and their teachers are doing everything they can to ensure their safety while at school.

Keep it focused on what you can control

The influx of these tragic events can make you feel out of control as a parent, and that is normal. It can make you feel as though you want to do something to fix the problem. First and foremost, turn off the TV, stop scrolling on your phone, and hug your children. Decide to get to know them and respect them for who they are. Building strong, resilient, and confident kids with emotional flexibility is the most important thing you can do. Then, you and your child can fight to make the world a safer place, together. Remember that Bend is always here to support you along the way.