How to talk to children about school shootings

– Find out what your child or student knows about the event.
Don’t make assumptions. Even if you haven’t yet discussed it together, kids may have heard the news from media sources or classmates. Their perception of what has happened may be very different from the reality. Let them talk.

-Reassure the child that it’s ok to talk about sad or scary events. It’s also ok to admit to feeling sad, scared, or angry. You don’t want kids to think something is wrong with them when they feel that way. You are the emotion coach.

-Do not use terminology like mentally ill or crazy.
There is already a stigma about mental disorders and labeling shooters as mentally ill makes it even less likely that people (including children and teens) with mental disorder symptoms will seek treatment or support.

-Encourage questions, both now and in the future.
Question-and-answer exchanges provide you with the opportunity to offer support as your child begins to understand the crisis and the response to it.

-In sharing information, be honest, but be mindful of the child’s developmental age. The National Association of School Psychologists offers these helpful guidelines in its tips for talking with children about violence:

Early elementary school children need brief, simple information that should be balanced with reassurances that their school and homes are safe and that adults are there to protect them. Give simple examples of school safety like reminding children about exterior doors being locked, child monitoring efforts on the playground, and emergency drills practiced during the school day.

Upper elementary and early middle school children will be more vocal in asking questions about whether they truly are safe and what is being done at their school. They may need assistance separating reality from fantasy. Discuss efforts of school and community leaders to provide safe schools.

Upper middle school and high school students may have strong and varying opinions about the causes of violence in schools and society. They will share concrete suggestions about how to make school safer and how to prevent tragedies in society. Emphasize the role that students have in maintaining safe schools by following school safety guidelines (e.g. not providing building access to strangers, reporting strangers on campus, reporting threats to the school safety made by students or community members, etc.), communicating any personal safety concerns to school administrators, and accessing support for emotional needs.

-Remember that it’s ok to admit that you don’t have all of the answers. The simplest reply might be something like, ‘I’m sad about the news, and I’m worried. But I love you, and I’m here to care for you.’”

-Be patient.
If the child doesn’t have much to say yet, give them some time and let them know that it’s ok to come back with more questions or to talk about the events when ready. If they show signs of depression and anxiety over time, speak with the child’s pediatrician or a psychologist for guidance.

-Don’t let children stay home if they express reluctance to go to school. Avoidance increases anxiety.

-Encourage the child to express feelings and ideas through familiar activities such as writing, drawing, and singing.

-Turn off the news.
Media/visual images can add to the trauma of a tragedy, particularly for young children. Images on the television, in video, and on the Internet can be confusing and disorienting as dramatic images are repeated over and over again.

-Look for “kid-friendly” sources of information.
These might include children’s books, magazines and websites for children who want to learn more.

-Talk about people who are helping.
The wonderful Mr. Rogers noted that whenever his family learned about bad news, his mother encouraged him to “look for the helpers.” These may include first responders, volunteers, doctors, teachers, or community members. Let your child know that even though bad things happen, the world has many good people who want to help.

-Keep up your routine.
Normalcy will help the child deal with difficult feelings, as will doing fun things that you both enjoy. Remember that kids still need to be kids.

-Stay calm.
Model self care by sticking to a routine, including appropriate sleep, exercise, meal times, quiet time, chores, and family time.

-Keep home a safe place.
Children, regardless of age, often find home to be a safe haven when the world around them becomes overwhelming. During times of crisis, it is important to remember that children may come home seeking the safe feeling they have being there. Help make it a place where your children find the peace or comfort they need.

-Be together.
Consider planning a night where everyone participates in a favorite family activity, movie, or game.

-Watch for signs of stress, fear or anxiety.
After a traumatic event, it is typical for children (and adults) to experience a wide range of emotions, including fearfulness, shock, anger, grief and anxiety. Your children’s behaviors may change because of their response to the event. They may experience trouble sleeping, difficulty with concentrating on school work or home responsibilities, changes in appetite, and changes in mood. This is normal for everyone and should begin to disappear in four to six weeks, if no other traumatic events have occurred.

-Monitor adult conversations.
Be aware that your children may be listening to your conversations. If they do not understand they will “fill in the gaps,” which can increase anxiety.

-Check in often.
Be sure to check in regularly with your children as you monitor their coping. Provide extra time, attention and patience.

-Get close.
Give your child extra comfort and physical affection, like hugs or snuggling up together with a favorite book.

For more info see American Psychological Association guidelines on coping with gun violence and my post on anxiety and coping skills:

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Embolden Psychology
Embolden

Embolden offers the ADOS-2, the gold standard assessment for kids on the spectrum.

Combined with psychoeducational testing, it helps provide comprehensive information and recommendations to help children and teens six and up.

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