How to Talk to Your Kids About School Shootings

How to Talk to Your Kids About School Shootings
Photo: MH Photovideo, Shutterstock

If only gun violence were as “unimaginable” or “unthinkable” in the United States as the politicians’ tweets proclaim in the wake of yet another school shooting. Instead, we’ve endured so many mass shootings — in schools, in grocery stores, in churches, and that’s from this week alone; we’re on a pace of more than one a day in 2022 — that it’s hard to feel anything but numb from horror. Humans weren’t meant to process this much grief. So how do you explain to your child what you yourself will never understand? All words fail, and yet, your job as a parent is to find something, anything to say.

It’s natural to feel helpless right now. But as we’ve previously told you, it’s possible to share the facts with our kids while also reassuring them that we and the other adults in their lives are taking care of them and doing what we can to keep them safe. I spoke with parenting and school psychologist Reena B. Patel for further insight on how to speak to your children about school shootings. If you need a little guidance on how to shape this difficult conversation with your kids, it’s a place to start.

Create a safe space to talk

Your kid likely has questions and fears that they don’t have the words to describe — just like you. Patel says you should allow your child’s questions to serve as your discussion guide as you decide how much information to share.

Watch for any signs that they may want to talk. “Some children prefer writing, playing music, or doing an art project as an expressive modality,” Patel says. Additionally, she notes that young children may need concrete activities (such as drawing, looking at picture books, or imaginative play) to help them identify and express their feelings.

Prepare for the “why?”

To state the obvious: We don’t know “why” people do this. It’s fine to share this painful reality with your kid. Some people do terrible, violent things and we don’t fully understand the “why.” But as psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen writes, it’s important to tell your kid that there are many more good people in the world than bad. When you can’t give your child a satisfying answer to “why,” remind them what you do know: You will always do what you can to keep them safe.

Review safety protocols

Obviously, your child’s school safety protocols feel inadequate right now for a whole host of reasons. But in this moment, it’s important to move the conversation from the impossible (why do bad people do bad things?) to the tangible (what position do you get in during a safety drill?). Additionally, help your children identify at least one adult at school and in the community to whom they can go if they feel threatened or at risk.

Limit media coverage of violent events

“Developmentally inappropriate information can cause anxiety or confusion, particularly in young children,” says Patel. “Adults also need to be mindful of the content of conversations that they have with each other in front of children, even teenagers, and limit their exposure.”

This means taking care of yourself, too. Here are some additional tips to cope with living in a state of perpetual crisis.

Maintain a consistent routine

Routine is reassuring. Patel says to encourage your child to keep up with their schoolwork and extracurricular activities, but “don’t push them if they seem overwhelmed.” Otherwise, do your best to ensure they continue to get plenty of sleep, physical activity, and a healthy diet.

Monitor emotions: your kid’s and your own

Patel points out that changes in behaviour, appetite, and sleep patterns can also indicate a child’s level of anxiety or discomfort. In most children, these symptoms will ease with reassurance and time. Seek the help of a mental health professional if you are at all concerned.

Children remember actions more than words, so monitor your own emotions, too. “Kids will feel more secure in general when parents present themselves as calm and positive,” Sarah Kate Bearman, an assistant professor of educational psychology at University of Texas at Austin, told us near the start of the pandemic.

Be kind to yourself

All the points in this guide are applicable to both you and your child. I wish this conversation were unimaginable; instead, this country has made it inevitable. Be kind to yourself as you grieve and try to make sense of this profound loss.

Reena B. Patel (LEP, BCBA) is a renowned parenting and school psychologist, board-certified behaviour analyst, and author of Winnie & Her Worries.

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