How to Talk to Kids About School Shootings
School shootings have become increasingly common in the United States. This problem is just too widespread for parents to ignore now.
The last thing we want to do is scare our kids, but they're bound to hear about shootings on the news or at school.
After a shooting occurs, we owe it to our kids to answer their questions. Age by age, here's how to navigate this difficult topic.
Deal With Your Own Feelings First
When news breaks that another school shooting happened, no one is hit harder than parents. Our kids may be worried, but as parents, we understand the scope of the tragedy on a deeper level. We recognize the unfathomable grief of those who dropped their kids off at school and never brought them home again. As we watch the news, we carry some of that grief with us.
The feelings parents may experience while processing a tragedy involving children are complex. On one hand, it has become so common that it's not abnormal to feel numb. On the other, we can't help but wonder as we take our own kids to school, could it happen to us too?
It's understandable for parents to feel anxious, worried or even depressed when a story like this breaks. At the same time, it's important to remember that our kids look to us to know how to react. They rely on us for emotional stability, so our reactions strongly influence how they interpret their external world.
Before thinking about what to say, think about how to be. Evaluate your own feelings and keep an eye on your own reactions. If you're struggling to cope, consider talking to a friend, a parenting support group or a mental health professional for support.
When you do talk with your child, it's OK to acknowledge that the event was very, very sad, but keep your composure. You are your child's safe space, so remaining calm is the easiest way to put their minds at ease.
Find Out What's Being Said at School
How aware your child is about school shootings depends greatly on their environment. Some schools don't address it at all, while others have started practicing active shooter drills with students as young as 5 years old. Make sure you know what your child's experience is like at school so that you know which topics to address and which to leave for later.
For example, if they're going to have a drill at school, it's necessary to explain to them that it's just like a fire drill. It's only practice for an emergency, but the odds of an emergency actually happening are extremely slim. If your child is under the age of 8 and the issue isn't being discussed at school, however, it may not be necessary to bring it up at all.
According to experts, kids under that age can't fully process this. If it doesn't directly affect them or their family, and if they haven't heard about it at school, save the conversation for when they're older.
Focus on Facts
The evening news rarely shares the positive side of anything. It's worth remembering that even in cases like these, there is a positive side. And that's the side we should emphasize with our kids.
Focusing on stats might give you and your kids some peace of mind. For example, millions of students go to school every day. In the past 20 years, 365 people were injured during school shootings, and only 157 of them lost their lives.
That's 157 too many, but that's still an extremely low number compared to how many people go to school and come home safely every day. During that time, 310 schools have experienced gun violence. That sounds like a lot, but there are over 130,000 schools in America. The vast majority of schools will never face the threat of violence.
In other words, going to school is mostly very, very safe. The car ride to school is likely the riskiest part of the school day, and you're not afraid of that, are you?
Under Age 6: Keep It Short
If you do have to bring up a school shooting with young kids, keep it simple. Give them a short, one-sentence story, and focus on the positives. For example, you can tell them that an angry person hurt people, but most of the kids there were safe.
You can also focus on the heroes of the story who stepped in to help. This small shift can help them reframe a scary event to one in which the good guys came out on top.
Elementary Age: Protect and Reassure
Older elementary school children have a better understanding of the seriousness of events like the one at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, that killed 19 children and two teachers in May 2022.
But just like younger kids, they aren't old enough to fully make sense of it. They're likely to ask more questions, so try to answer factually and honestly without giving them any gritty details. For example, they don't need to know how many people died. Don't overexplain. Instead, point out that most of the kids at the school were OK, and violence at school is still very uncommon.
Do your best to minimize exposure to images or videos on the news or online. Kids are impressionable, and frightening photos or videos of distressed families will stay with them longer than anything you say.
If they do come across pictures, balance them out by sharing positive photos of all the teachers and first responders who came to the rescue.
Tweens: Engage in Conversation
With tweens, start by finding out what they know. Ask if they've heard about the shooting. If they have, ask how they feel about it and go from there. This gives you a chance to understand where your tween is at mentally and provide reassurance and perspective.
If they haven't heard about the event or aren't sure how to feel, consider it an opportunity to emphasize your own family values. For example, you could discuss the issues surrounding mental health and community involvement.
If they're worried, consider taking a self-defense class together.
Teens: Find Ways to Help
Unlike younger kids, teens can fully grasp the complexities of the issue. They're also old enough to demand more than just a discussion. They expect action, and you can take that action together. Discuss the problem of gun violence in depth, and let them take the lead. Listen to their concerns, and show empathy whether they're feeling afraid, frustrated or enraged.
From there, help them find ways to work toward solving the problem. Consider raising funds to donate to Sandy Hook Promise, a nonprofit focused on identifying and helping socially isolated individuals who may be at risk of hurting themselves or others. You can also sign up to volunteer.
Teens can read up on the latest gun control legislature and become advocates for gun violence prevention in their community. With teens, it's not just about giving them the stats, It's about empowering them to improve them for the next generation. And that's pretty cool, if you ask us.
If you only remember one thing, remember to listen. Whether your child is 5 or 15, simply being there for them goes a long way.
When they ask questions, it's OK that your answers can't magically make it all better. Just the fact that they have someone to talk to who's there to help them process a traumatic event is a good place to start.
Instead of sharing your worries, respond to their specific concerns. Emphasize that there's no immediate threat to them, their friends and family. They're safe, and action is being taken to keep them that way.
Recognize Signs That Your Child Needs More Support Than You Can Offer
If your kids are upset, that's completely normal. But how upset is too upset? The following signs are indicators that your child is struggling to cope with a stressful event, and may need additional help:
- Sudden regression with potty training
- Recurrent scary thoughts or worries
- Trouble sleeping
- Lack of appetite
- Complaints about tummy aches or headaches
- Trouble focusing
- Social isolation
- Irritability or depression
- Clinginess or separation anxiety
- Uncharacteristic behavioral issues
If you notice these or any other troubling signs for more than a few days, consider speaking with your pediatrician, school counselor, or family therapist for guidance.
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