How To Talk To Your Kids About School Shootings
Psychologist and behavior analyst Reena B. Patel helps us navigate this extremely difficult conversation.
It feels unthinkable — another school shooting. But today, we are once again a nation struggling to comprehend unimaginable loss, this time of 19 students and two teachers at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. According to the Gun Violence Archive, which tracks mass shootings in the U.S., the tragedy that unfolded on May 24 is the 27th school shooting this year and marks more than 200 mass shootings so far in 2022. With so much violence (and the complex emotional processing that surrounds it), it's impossible not to wonder: How do we talk to our kids about school shootings?
Because we should be talking to our kids when these tragedies take place. They need trusted adults to help them process their feelings and answer their questions. To help navigate these difficult and deeply nuanced conversations, Scary Mommy asked Reena B. Patel, parenting expert, guidance counselor, licensed educational psychologist, and board-certified behavior analyst, for insight.
How much information about school shootings should children see or hear?
Your children will likely hear about the news, regardless of whether you want them to or not — but you can act as a filter to sieve out the more sensationalist information.
“We shouldn’t shield our children from the world,” says Patel. “We need to prepare them for this reality of mass shootings we are living in. However, overexposure can cause acute stress. Depending on your child’s developmental stage, share what is appropriate.”
Jamie Howard, a psychologist with the Child Mind Institute, detailed what to say by age with CBS This Morning on Wednesday. Watch her advice below (and read on for more details).
What can you say to reassure your child about their safety, in school and otherwise?
According to Patel, reassuring your child involves sharing both facts and feelings. “Emphasize that schools are very safe. Validate their feelings — explain that all feelings are OK when a tragedy occurs. Let children talk about their feelings, help put them into perspective, and assist them in expressing these feelings appropriately,” she suggests.
Another way you can reassure your child is to go over the safety protocols in place both at home and at school, such as active shooter drills (reach out to your child’s school officials to find out what they call active shooter drills so that you can frame your conversation with your child in a way that doesn’t reveal too much). Help your child identify at least one trusted adult at school or your community at large who they feel comfortable going to if they feel threatened or at risk.
Having a routine is also reassuring for children. A healthy response to tragedy includes making sure they are getting enough sleep, eating well, and remaining active when possible. Don’t push them during this time, says Patel, but do encourage them to stick with their regular schoolwork and extracurricular activities.
When children ask what happened or why, what should you tell them?
You don’t have to pretend to understand why such violence takes place. It defies comprehension, and it’s OK to tell your child that. Use open-ended questions — “What did you hear?” or “Why do you think?” — to gauge where they’re getting their information and how they feel about it. Sometimes, all you need to say is “Someone hurt people, and I don’t know why... but I’m here for you whenever you want to talk about it.”
When your child opens up, make sure you listen with intent. “Use words such as ‘I see,’ ‘I hear that,’ ‘You must be’ ... this shows your child you respect what they’re going through,” says Patel.
Dr. Amy Mezulis, a professor of clinical psychology at Seattle Pacific, spoke with NBC Seattle to encourage parents to talk to their kids about the Uvalde shooting. See her advice in the video below, followed by further pointers from Patel for initiating these conversations.
How can we give our kids room to feel upset without it overwhelming them?
Parents are sad, angry, and scared right now. Even as adults, we aren't sure how to process those feelings. Still, we know it’s important to work through them instead of bottling them up. The same applies to kids; they need an outlet for all of their emotions in the aftermath of school shootings. “It’s a good time to check in with our kids, and really ask those questions of ‘How are you?’ ‘What's bothering you?’ and address situations you know may be stressful for them,” says Patel, adding that we need to show them ways they can cope. “Even as young as 3, children should begin to learn techniques to navigate through everyday stressors.”
In these situations, Patel says to remember:
- That it’s OK to over-explain for extra reassurance during this time.
- To be mindful of your child’s developmental age when sharing your response.
- To touch base periodically with your child’s teachers to get ahead of any challenges they’re facing.
You’ll also want to monitor your child’s emotions so they don’t veer into more problematic territory. Look for dramatic changes in their behavior, appetite, or sleep patterns that could indicate an unhealthy level of anxiety or discomfort. While symptoms should ease over time, you should seek professional help if you’re concerned at all that your child is struggling.
How can we start these conversations with our kids?
Patel offers the following advice for broaching school shootings with your kids.
- Reassure your child. Validate their feelings while also emphasizing that schools are very safe.
- Let them know they can talk to you. Create an environment where they can ask questions — no matter how complicated or challenging — and discuss their thoughts openly and without judgment.
- Remember that children express their feelings in different ways. Some children communicate better through creative modalities, like drawing or playing music.
- Speak to them on their level. Elementary school kids may need activities that help them identify and express their feelings. They need brief, concrete examples to remind them how they're being protected, such as pointing out locked doors or safety guards monitoring the playground. Children in middle school, says Patel, will ask more direct questions about safety measures. And high school students will likely want to play a role in their safety and the safety of their friends, so they may ask what they can do to get more involved in proactive measures such as advocating for gun reform legislation.
- Keep mental health in your conversations. Encourage kids of all ages, but especially tweens and teens, to seek help and support others.
- Use the word “sometimes.” Says Patel, “This teaches us to be flexible and understand that yes, there might be a time frame given when we all can try and get back to normal, but in case that doesn't happen by a set time, your child will be ready to adjust.”
Patel recently spoke with 9&10 News about the importance of supporting your child’s mental well-being. Watch the video below for her five action steps for helping someone in emotional pain.
What else can parents do?
Don’t forget to take care of yourself. Kids are always watching — let them see you model mental health care and emotional processing. And know, always, that help is available. If you or your children are struggling in the aftermath of a traumatic event such as a school shooting, seek out a therapist, your child’s pediatrician, or other mental health experts.
You can also be prepared by knowing appropriate state and national hotlines. For situations that are potentially life-threatening, dial 911 for immediate emergency assistance. For other guidance, contact the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) HelpLine at 1-800-950-NAMI.
In addition to discussing school shootings with your child, try to limit how much news they're taking in. After a tragic event like this, there is usually a heavy stream of coverage, and watching too much can lead to anxiety. Do your best to limit the amount of news they watch without hiding information.
Often children base their attitudes about an event on how their parents respond, so it's important to pay close attention to how you express your feelings in front of your children. School shootings stir a whirlwind of emotions for everyone, so it’s OK to share how you feel, but be mindful of how you react to avoid distressing your child further. Take advantage of other healthy coping mechanisms, like talking to close friends, family, or mental health professionals.
Reena B. Patel (LEP, BCBA) renowned parenting and school psychologist, board-certified behavior analyst, and author of Winnie & Her Worries
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