How to talk to children about school shootings, including the one thing you shouldn't say
There have been 18 school shootings this year so far (and it’s only February!). Here’s how to talk about these tragic events with your child, according to a child therapist.
Last night, as pictures of frightened, traumatized students fleeing their school filled our TV screens—yet again—parents were faced with a question that comes with chilling regularity now: How do I tell my child she is safe going to school, when school shootings happen again and again, with no end in sight?
The numbers are mind-boggling. Yesterday, 17 students and teachers were killed when a former student stalked the halls of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL, with an AR-15 rifle. This comes five years after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, and 19 years after Columbine. But we don’t have to look back that far to see the horror: According to the nonprofit EveryTown for Gun Safety, there have been 290 school shootings since 2013, including 18 so far this year (and remember, it’s only February).
The constant onslaught of bad news can make parents feel paralyzed, unsure of what to say to their kids, but it’s important to address their concerns and model for them that having an emotional reaction to tragedy is a normal and healthy response, says Adam Brown, PsyD, clinical assistant professor of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at NYU Langone Health.
If you’re having trouble finding the words, here’s how to start:
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• Don’t assume your child is blissfully unaware of what’s going on. “Many parents limit exposure to the news, but just because you don’t have the TV on, it doesn’t mean they’re not going to hear what happened from other people,” says Brown. If you’re not sure how much your child knows, say, “Something scary happened at a school in Florida today. Have you heard anything about it? Do you have any questions?” It’s always better for your child to hear the news from you, rather than on the school bus or schoolyard, where they could be picking up wildly inaccurate info, Brown adds.
• Reassure your child, but don’t promise that a tragedy will never occur in your town. The first thing is to let your child know he or she is safe. You can say, “This happened in a different state (or town), and not at your school. They caught the bad guy, so you are not in any danger,” says Brown, who points out that this is very different from saying, “No, this will never happen in our town.” What you can do is point out all the ways that you, your child’s teacher, and the police are working to keep everyone safe. If your child still feel anxious and powerless, help him channel those emotions in a positive way, by writing a letter to your congressperson about gun laws, or raising money for victims of violence.
• Follow your child’s lead. “Give your child a little bit of information, and see how he or she reacts to it,” says Brown. For some , that will be enough, but others will need more. Allow them to lead the conversation, asking questions until they feel satisfied.
• Let your teen talk express anger and fear. Teenagers are already going to be grappling with deeper moral and ethical questions, and it’s important to create an environment where they can speak openly about their feelings, says Brown—though he points out that some may be more inclined to talk about these issues with their friends than with their parents. Still, you can sit down with your teen and say, “When things like this happen it makes me question my basic assumptions about the world, and I’m wondering what it’s like for you?” Even when you don’t have any answers, you can take the opportunity to have an open, meaningful discussion.