Mental health experts say the language you use to talk to your children about these terrifying (but important) preparedness scenarios is vital.
You undoubtedly don't need anyone to tell you that gun violence in the U.S. is both an epidemic and a public health crisis, with mass shootings nearing 200 in 2022 alone, according to the Gun Violence Archive — and that's before the year is even halfway over. And with an average of around 10 mass shooting events per week in this country, you also don't need us to tell you that school shootings are alarmingly common. Unfortunately, with little actionable gun control on a state or federal level in sight, kids as young as elementary school have likely experienced at least one active shooter drill, if not an active shooter event, in their lifetimes. Everytown for Gun Safety notes that 2022 has seen at least 55 incidents of gunfire on school grounds nationally, resulting in 8 deaths and 31 injuries.
Two mental health experts tell Scary Mommy how you can help comfort your child when they feel uneasy, afraid, or anxious about these drills, from elementary school to higher ed. "It is important to take into account different developmental stages of childhood when you have discussions with your kids," says Terri Bacow, Ph.D., New York-based psychologist and author of Goodbye Anxiety. Dr. Courtney Glickman, mental health therapist and founder of The Collective Healing Center, agrees, especially given that younger children may not completely understand why these drills are needed, and older children likely have unfettered access to news alerts and information by way of their devices.
Active Shooter Preparedness, By Age
Children 7 and Under
"Younger children (under 7) struggle with a sense of time and may not be able to distinguish a drill from a real threat if the notice of a drill occurring happens too much in advance. In addition, these drills introduce or reinforce the idea that the world is a scary and dangerous place, that people kill other people," says Glickman, who says that taking a trauma-informed approach with little ones is essential. "Learning the reality that bad things can happen in an unpredictable and senseless way can be very destabilizing for children. Noting that these drills are a protective measure can provide a sense of security."
"Use simple and concrete language when explaining the details to young children. So much of what is conveyed is also nonverbal. Children at this age look to their parents and caregivers for a model of how they should react to the situation."
That means even if your nerves are rattled (and understandably so), staying outwardly calm and listening, letting your child express their feelings openly at any age is crucial, adds Bacow, who notes that kids can and will pick up on parents' anxious behavior.
"Parents should also keep the lines of communication open and convey to their kids that it is okay to have a variety of feelings, that having emotions is normal, that practicing for a shooter can be really scary, and that they should come to their parents at any time if they want to talk about it," says Bacow. "While parents should present calmness, they should also validate their children's feelings and let them know it is entirely understandable to be frightened, scared, or upset when terrible things happen."
Children 8 to 12
Glickman recommends a different approach if your kids are in the 8 to 12 range. "Older school-age children have a clearer understanding of active shooters/active shooter drills and death in general," she explains. "This age range tends to be a time in which many children experience a fear of their own death or the death of their loved ones. As a result, this fear may be amplified with the knowledge and exposure to the widespread sources of information around shootings."
"Talking to your kids is crucial," she adds. "Avoidance of scary or difficult topics can perpetuate anxieties. Children have very active imaginations, which can lead to magnified fears. Having discussions and answering their questions can provide reassurance around safety planning and help separate reality from imagination."
"Parents should also be honest and transparent and real," notes Bacow. "This is the world we live in, and it is really unfortunate."
Teens 13 and Up
"In adolescence, cognitive abilities become more complex; teens can begin to reflect on their morality and start looking for information and experiences to explore further," says Glickman. "They may relate more strongly to the collective experiences and become interested in social justice and advocacy. Parents and caregivers can use this passion to help teens feel a sense of control in the midst of so much powerlessness. Having broader conversations around why mass shootings happen in our country and how to get involved can be a source of healing and empowerment. It is also important to monitor the news being consumed by your adolescent. Children and adolescents have so much access to media that can be graphic, biased, and propagate false information. Parents and caregivers should educate their children on how to evaluate news outlets to ensure their credibility and reliability."
Asking open-ended questions about where your child is getting their info from and encouraging open dialogue is important at any stage, with Glickman noting: "I think it is important to trust your intuition and knowledge of your child and what they need. How does your child operate emotionally, cognitively, and socially? And tailor your response to them individually. However, if your child seems to be struggling with fears and anxiety, seeking professional help from a mental health provider may be beneficial." Bacow notes that a therapist specializing in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) might be helpful, as concrete strategies or tools for problem-solving and/or coping with anxiety can help them feel empowered during these drills.
Other Things to Keep in Mind
Aside from open conversations, Bacow recommends doing deep breathing/belly breathing exercises with your kids (inhale to a count of four, pause, exhale to a count of four), encouraging them to try it if they feel nervous or scared at school.
"From a probability standpoint, it is very unlikely that a shooting will happen in your child's school," notes Bacow. That said, "active shooter drills likely are a way to prepare, and it is always helpful in life to be prepared."
Terri Bacow, Ph.D., New York-based psychologist and author of Goodbye Anxiety
Dr. Courtney Glickman, mental health therapist and founder of The Collective Healing Center
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