Communication, Comfort, Caring: Age-appropriate conversations about school shootings

Our screens are full of horrifying images and accounts of the recent massacre of children in Uvalde, Texas, on May 25, and of other shootings both before and since.   

Here at The Bougainvilla House, we are thinking with compassion of the families and their trauma, and also of all the families across the nation and right here in our community, trying to make sense of the senseless loss of precious lives. Of parents trying to support their children. Of children and teens as they wonder if they are safe at school. 

We understand the shock, the sorrow, and the stress our families are enduring, and also the importance of talking about it together. Below, we offer a few thoughts on how to talk to children and teens about school shootings, and additional resources for further information.  

How to talk about tragedy: 

  1. Manage your own response 
  2. It’s important to talk 
  3. Age by age 
  4. Keep it normal 
  5. Limit media exposure 
  6. Know your child 
  7. Seek help if it’s needed 

Manage your own response.

Before you talk with your child, make sure your own emotional reactions are under control. It’s understandable to feel deep grief, fear and other emotions, but take time to look after yourself and to process these feelings so that you are ready to support your children. 

Should I talk about it with my kids? 

If you are a parent of a young child, decide if you want to tell them about the event. As a general rule, the American Psychiatric Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics counsel against telling children age 8 and under about tragic events like a school shooting, unless they are directly affected or likely to hear about it from others. Know your child and the likelihood that they may find out about the event, and decide accordingly.  

It’s important to signal to teens and older children that you’re open to talking about the tragedy, even if they don’t bring it up themselves. Equally important, don’t force the conversation if your teen is unwilling to discuss it. Let them know you are willing to talk anytime, that you’re concerned about their feelings and want them to know they can come to you with questions, comments and concerns.  

Age by age 

 

Preschool and early elementary-age children:

Decide on the simple story and message you want to give very young children. If you have reason to think they have seen or heard something about the shooting, plan out a simple sentence or two to explain, and try to balance it with a positive or caring message; for example, “a very angry person hurt some people, but the helpers are taking care of their families, just like we are here taking care of each other. Especially when we feel sad.” 

Parents who want to talk more directly about the event may want to consider this approach, offered by Dr. David Schonfeld, director of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement. Schonfeld, who works with communities affected by mass shootings, suggests parents include some context for the location of the event relative to their own community: “I want to let you know that in a school that is hours away from us, there was a person who shot some children and adults, and a lot of people are sad.” 

Older elementary-age children: 

Find out what your child knows and wants to know, if anything. That gives you an opportunity to correct any misinformation and to answer their questions, but without giving too much detail. If you don’t know, or want to think about your response, say so, and follow up if you think it is appropriate. 

Young children quickly focus on how the event affects them. Talk with your child about everything that the school and the community do to keep them safe. It may also help to remind them that these events are uncommon (even if it doesn’t feel like it to you) and that they can go to school without worrying about their safety.  

Tweens and young teens: 

You can safely assume your child knows about the event, so ask them what they’ve heard. Listen actively and carefully, for both possible misinformation and for their emotional response to the news. They may be sad and scared, but afraid to show it or to appear babyish. Reassure your child that it’s okay to be upset, that this is a time when we all need to lean on others, and that you’re there to listen and support.    

Teens: 

Teens are old enough to understand if you express your own feelings about tragic events. Depending on your child’s personality, it may open the door to a discussion of their own feelings. Again, active and sensitive listening is the key, as well as respect for their own willingness to discuss their feelings.   

Make sure they know you are willing and open to talk about the event, including a discussion of the larger issues at stake, and what the country, state, community, school, and individuals can do to address it.  Gen Z teens can be skeptical challengers of information and opinions, so be prepared to say, “I don’t know” and to be honest and direct with your teen.   

With older children and teens, an event such as a mass shooting is also a reminder to reinforce the need to avoid bullying, judging, or isolating others, to be kind and inclusive with fellow students, to let a trusted adult know if they see or hear something concerning, and to call out negative behavior when they see it in others.  

Other healthy practices: 

 

Limit media exposure 

For your children’s sake and for your own, limit the amount of exposure to media coverage of events like the recent school shooting. It’s easy to keep watching and following every sad, horrific detail, but there is a cost to your family’s peace of mind and to yours as well.   

Keep it normal

Maintain normal household routines, rules, and expectations: doing homework, getting rest, exercising, enjoying activities, and eating healthy meals.  There is comfort in routine, for both you and your children, and it will help to reassure them that their world continues to be safe and predictable.  

Know your child 

You know your child, so watch for any changes in behavior, habits, attitude, mood, and socializing. If you have concerns, keep in touch with teachers, coaches, employers, youth leaders, and others who might need to be aware. And be sure to keep an open line of communication with your child, whether or not they appear to welcome it.  Find out more here. 

Seek help 

If you or a loved one are struggling with fear, anxiety or stress, consider talking to a mental health professional. The Bougainvilla House is here for you, with a safe space and an understanding and welcoming environment for you and your family. Take that important first step and ask for help.    

The Bougainvilla House also offers Parenting Workshops to provide tools and strategies that support healthy families and nurture future generations as they grow.     

Call now to find support for you and your family: (954) 764-7337.  

Additional Resources: 

 

https://www.schoolcrisiscenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/Guidelines-Talking-to-Kids-About-Attacks-Two-Sided-Onesheet-Format.pdf 

https://www.nctsn.org/sites/default/files/resources//parents_guidelines_for_helping_youth_after_the_recent_shooting.pdf  

https://healthychildren.org/English/family-life/Media/Pages/talking-to-children-about-tragedies-and-other-news-events.aspx 

https://kidsafefoundation.org/topics/an-age-by-age-guide-to-talking-to-children-about-mass-shootings/ 

Original source: https://www.nytimes.com/article/talk-about-school-shootings-kids.html?