How to talk to children about school shootings, according to experts

·6 min read
 (Getty Images/iStockphoto)
(Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Those living in the US have once again found themselves struggling to cope and comprehend senseless violence in the aftermath of another school shooting.

The Tuesday shooting at a Texas elementary school, which left 19 children and two adults dead, has also once again highlighted the need for parents in the US to address these tragedies with their children.

While it may seem easier, or preferable, to shield children from the horror of school shootings, especially when they are the same age as the children who lost their lives in Texas or younger, experts recommend the opposite.

Speaking to The Independent, Dr Robin Gurwitch, a psychologist and professor in the Duke University Medical Centre’s Centre for Child and Family Health, said that it is “critical” parents talk to their children about the school shooting.

“Sadly, we have been here before with even younger children at Sandy Hook. What we know is that it is critical for parents to talk to their children of all ages,” she explained. “As much as we would like to protect and shelter them from tragedies, we find they are at higher risk for mental health concerns when we don’t talk to them.”

According to Dr Gurwitch, most children will also already know or have heard about the shooting from friends, or classmates, social media, or TV, which is why she tells parents to “assume they have [heard], rather than they haven’t”.

Lindsay Adams, a licensed mental health therapist who works with children, the host of the Mindful as A Mother podcast, and the owner of Healing Hive Counselling Services, agreed, telling us that “parents of children of all ages should address the school shooting in a way that is honest and age appropriate”. “We think we are sheltering our children from fear and anxiety, but they are very attuned to the world around them. They will hear other children talking about or possibly see the news,” she said.

Because the nation’s children have likely already heard about the shooting, it makes it even more important that parents or caregivers discuss the tragedy, as it gives them an opportunity to address their child’s fears and comfort them.

“It’s best if the information comes from us so that they can process their feelings, ask questions, and we can share things in a way that is appropriate for their developmental level,” Adams explained.

As for how to start the conversation, Dr Gurwitch said that parents should begin by clearly stating there was a school shooting in Texas and then asking their children what they know about it.

According to Dr Gurwitch, it is necessary for parents to specify a shooting occurred because, if they cannot, their children might be more hesitant to come to them down the road with issues that are troubling them.

Once parents begin the conversation by asking their children to share what they know, it creates the opportunity for parents to validate their child’s emotions and concerns, and correct any misconceptions.

“As far as language goes, I would use validating and empathetic language,” Adams said. “As adults, we often rush to ‘don’t be scared,’ rather than holding space for our child’s emotions. Normalising the fear and grief that most people are feeling in this moment helps them feel less afraid and alone.”

Parents should also be transparent and honest about their own emotions, because children will be looking to their caregivers to see how they are coping with the tragedy.

“It is alright for children to see you are distressed, and know that you are worried or upset or angry too,” Dr Gurwitch said. “But make sure you are not losing control, as that is very scary for children. Make sure you can pull it together.”

To do so, Dr Gurwitch recommends using coping methods frequently used in your family, such as taking comfort in a family pet or doing breathing exercises together.

Parents should also be honest about the realities and timing of the event, and “recognise that this is not in a vacuum,” according to Dr Gurwitch, who acknowledged the shooting follows many similar school shootings, as well as two years of a pandemic, and an increase in racism, hate and racially motivated attacks, which are all likely contributing to feelings of anxiety and stress.

As for how parents should address a child’s fears about safety at their own school, Dr Gurwitch said that parents should assure their children that their school is doing everything it can to keep them safe, that they are confident in the school’s ability to keep them from danger, and that they wouldn’t send them if they didn’t think it would be okay.

“I think what we can do is let our children know that their school is doing everything it can do to keep them safe,” she said, adding that parents should tell their children: “I would never send you to some place I didn’t think is safe”.

“We may have to take a really deep breath to say that and that’s alright, as they are looking to us to cope,” she said. Parents should also remind their children that, if there is anything they are concerned about at school, they can come to them or a trusted teacher, and that you will take care of it.

According to Adams, the conversation may also lead to a discussion about planning, and about what a child can do to keep themselves safe. She noted that it is important not to do this “in a way that scares them, but empowers them to feel like they know how to react and what to do if something happens”.

The tragedy also creates the opportunity for parents to talk to their children about what they can do to help those impacted by the shooting. While Dr Gurwitch poignantly acknowledged that “elementary school children can do nothing about gun laws,” she said parents can have a discussion with children about how to treat one another.

If the child is older, parents may involve them in helping those who are directly impacted, by volunteering or through community advocacy.

According to Adams, who noted that this will look different for every family, doing so can “allow your child the space to feel the fear and pain and put their feelings into action in a way that feels helpful”.

Even when parents do everything right, children may experience distress as a result of the shooting, which may manifest in them becoming clingier than usual, or having tantrums, according to Dr Gurwitch. The behaviour, especially in children who have experienced violence before, is typical, with parents advised to “provide a little bit of extra attention and patience”.

Dr Gurwitch also wants parents to know that there are a number of resources available to help them and their children navigate the aftermath of the traumatic experience, and that parents who are worried should contact their child’s paediatrician or a mental health expert for help. Parents can find a number of resources on the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, which can be found here.

Ultimately, Dr Gurwitch said that most children and teenagers will be okay after learning about the shooting. However, that is exactly why parents should have the difficult conversation with them, as “the reason they are more likely to be okay is because they have that supportive system around them,” and parents “need to make sure it’s working”.