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How to Safely Talk with (Anxious) Kids About School Shootings

Don't pretend nothing's happened. Respond to questions and concerns directly, matter-of-factly and age-appropriately.
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An image of a tired woman and a child
An image of a tired woman and a child

One of the greatest challenges of parenting is explaining the inexplicable to children. Fostering calm is difficult when children are hijacked by fear. Remaining clear and confident is a feat when we are overwhelmed by our own fears. This is especially true for kids who struggle with Anxiety, which is about 30% of kids these days.

The beautiful world we live in doubles as a terrifying place -- for adults, and for our kids. So we find ourselves walking a narrow line. On the one hand, our kids need our protection. On the other, they must learn to face the challenges that lie ahead for them in that big, bad, beautiful world "out there."

The horrifying reality of school shootings brings us face to face with this inherent contradiction of parenting. It throws everyone, both child and adult, off balance. Sure, we know that terrible things happen. But when it feels particularly close to home -- and to school -- we are usually not as prepared as we'd like to be to respond.

Wouldn't it be great if we could count on special assemblies, given by caring school counselors, to teach our kids to make sense of the the absurdity of school shootings? It's more complicated than that. These events are rife with nuance, and reach their tentacles into the depths of our hearts and souls.

Somehow hoping each school shooting would be the last, I've tried to avoid writing this article for years. I can't pretend it doesn't exist, anymore -- none of us can.

So How SHOULD Parents Respond to Shocking Events?

It's tricky -- like walking a tight rope. We must invite our kids to deal with complicated feelings and thoughts, at their own pace. We want to encourage them to get support from us when they're ready for it -- or when we see that they need more than they're asking for. And to the extent possible, we want to deal with our own worries away from their attentive eyes -- especially for younger kids.

So, while psychologists and counselors are invited to contribute below and add to this list, here is one mom's coach approach, a few tips for talking to kids about school shootings:

For Young Children (under 10 - but trust your instincts):

1. Try not to talk about traumatic events, whether public or private, in earshot of your kids. The constant blanket of gloom and doom that dominates daily news does not nurture them.

2. Ask them to tell you their understanding of the current event. Don't provide any more information than they need to know.

3. Very often, your children will find ways to think about things that reduce anxiety for them, so be matter-of-fact if you feel the need to correct your child's understanding of the event. Be aware that accuracy may not always be in their best interest.

4. Keep descriptions general. Try to avoid specific images that can be hard to get out of their minds, or that they can magnify with their imagination.

5. Sometimes, you may not know what is upsetting to your kids. If you think something is bothering them, pose questions and try to keep them open: "what are you thinking about these days?" or "what kinds of things did your class discuss today during school?"

6. If you notice changes in behavior, like an increased need for control, or the voicing of new fears, don't ignore them. If the behavior continues after some conversations, consider consulting a counselor.

For Older Children (over 10 - but trust your instincts):

1. Refer to the list for Young Children -- it is applicable to parents of all young people.

2. Ask your children what they know, and what questions remain for them. Be clear and specific.

3. This is not for everyone -- again, you know your child! -- but consider having a conversation about what they might do in a similar scenario. Validate their thoughts and fears. They might feel guilty about wanting to escape, or emboldened to want to play the hero. Try not to tell them how to feel -- just give them a safe space to express those feelings.

4. In reality, traumatic events like school shootings are incredibly rare. It is highly unlikely that such a crisis would ever happen in your community, so de-bunk the myth that it is a likely possibility.

5. This may sound crazy, but use humor when you can. I told my kids that they are more likely to get hit by a truck than encounter a gun in their school, so I reminded them to look both ways before crossing the street!

6. Kids don't want to "rat out" their friends, so they don't know how to handle it when a friend is in serious emotional trouble. Talk about what they can do if they are worried about other kids, and how you can help. (e.g. My kids find comfort in knowing that I'll always respect their confidentiality, but that if someone's health is in danger, I'll help if they come to me.)

For Parents of Kids of ANY AGE:

1. Don't pretend nothing's happened. Respond to questions and concerns directly, matter-of-factly and age-appropriately.

2. If you are put on the spot by a child's comment or question, tell them you want to think about how to respond and remember to talk about it later!

3. Manage your own anxiety around the issue, and be conscious of what you're communicating. Kids smell fear. They reflect your emotions, even if you think you're hiding them. Beware of your body language and tone of voice. If you need a break to stay level-headed, take it -- self-management is hard to do when you feel threatened.

4. Try to keep the focus on concern for others. You're likely to feel strongly around these kinds of crises, so try to avoid sounding like you're fearful for your child's safety. Your child wants to trust your confidence in the safety of her environment.

5. Address your fears around your children being harmed, or potentially harming others. Reach out for help if you have concerns. Constant worry will dampen your relationships and stress out your kids.

6. Try not to become alarmist. Keep things in perspective. Sadly, you are much more likely to have to explain a teenage suicide to your child than respond to guns in your school.

7. Whenever there is a violent crime, try not to demonize the perpetrators to the point that you de-humanize them. Find compassion. People must be quite ill or tormented to commit heinous crimes.

All of these points -- especially the last one -- are difficult, no doubt! But there is an opportunity here. We can teach our kids that everyone needs help sometimes. That everyone struggles. And that when people who face significant problems don't get the help they need, things can spiral dangerously out of control.