How to Talk to Your Kids About School Shootings
The news is scary and sad. Here's how to help your kids deal with it.
When this happens, how should you react as a parent? Many local school districts and individual schools are trying to reassure parents about school safety and emergency plans. But what can you say to help your kids emotionally? We asked some local experts how to continue to support your children as they process this news.
The common advice for parents — take care of you so you can take care of your kids — applies even more when supporting children in times of crisis. Your children notice and respond to your own feelings, and won’t feel calm if you don’t.
If you’re feeling nervous about the security of your children’s school, ask questions. Find out what the emergency plan is at your school, how staff is trained, what drills are done, how the school’s entrances are made secure, and how families are contacted in the event of an emergency.
Knowing these details will calm you, and also provide some information that you can share with your children when you talk with them.
Getting involved in school may also help because it will make you feel more connected and confident about the people that care for your child all day. Go to a PTO meeting. Volunteer for school events. Even just switching to picking up your child in the lobby, if you usually use the bus or car line, may calm you since you’ll become more familiar with the building and staff.
How to Tell Your Kids
If you haven’t talked to your kids yet, it’s not too late — and it is important. Even the youngest children most likely know something has happened: they’ve noticed the cryptic conversations you’ve had or the tighter hugs you’ve given them, heard children talking about it at school or in the neighborhood, or caught bits on the radio or television.
Parenting expert Megan Leahy said, “Here’s the thing with kids in the midst of a crisis: They feel everything. The younger the children, the less they understand what they are feeling.”
Your kids need you to help them process and understand what they are feeling.
Tony Morelli, a social worker at Peter’s Place, a local organization supporting children and families in times of grief, encourages parents to tell their children about the shooting because by talking about it, parents can clear up any confusion that children may have, reassure their children that they work hard to keep them safe every day, and answer any questions that children have about the incident.
When you talk with your children, present the information in an age appropriate way. Begin by asking your kids what they know about the incident. Then, explain the facts in the simplest possible language.
For young children, try something like this: “a person whose brain was not working right used a gun and people died.” Older elementary and middle school children may need help separating the truth from fantasy. High school students will have strong opinions, and need your help sifting through all that they are hearing about the event.
Answer children’s questions directly, and trust that they will ask for as much more information as they can handle. Reassure children that these events are still unusual, and remind them of the safety procedures in place at their school. Take the opportunity to talk about what they can do to make school safer, and to talk about your own family emergency plan.
How and When Children May React
Your children may already have reacted to the news, or they may in the future. The American Academy of Pediatrics’ website has some signs that your child may not be coping with the news: sleep problems, physical complaints, changes in appetite, unusual behavior including regressive behavior, uncharacteristic anger or trouble separating from parents, unusual sadness, anxiety or fears.
Ultimately, you know your child — if something seems different, talk with them. Morelli recommends commenting to your child that you’ve noticed a change, and asking, for instance, “what is making you so angry lately?” Your child may or may not realize that the shooting is causing their behavior, but either way, your job is to provide support.
You might say, “We have talked about some scary stuff lately. The shooting in Florida makes me sad and angry, too. If that, or anything else, is making you upset, you can always come to me. What other things may make you feel better, too?”
Kids may benefit from more time outside, tools like stress balls, or opportunities to express themselves through art or drama when they are feeling anxious or sad.
How to Support Kids Who Want to Take Action
The Parkland shooting has inspired unprecedented activism among teenagers, and if you have an older child, they may want to become involved. Activities from letter-writing to marches to walkouts are planned, and social media is a powerful tool. If your child is involved, you likely have a mix of feelings about his or her desire to take action, ranging from pride to fear.
Encourage your child to think about activism — both the why and the how — with reason as well as passion. The 10 Questions for Participatory Politics, from Harvard University’s Youth Participatory Politics Research Network, is a terrific framework for your conversation with your child. Share with your child your own memories of youth activism, if you have some, and be frank about your feelings about your child’s participation. Talk with your child about the role social media is playing in youth activism now, and how to stay safe online.
Children of all ages may find that action comforts them, and may need help determining a direction for their passion. Young children may like making cards for the victims or raising money for relief organizations. Older children may wish to participate in local or national events (Students Demand Action is a good site for learning about these) or they may feel more comfortable working on making their own school community safer.
When the world feels big and scary, maintaining and strengthening your relationship with your child becomes even more important. Kids need parents to provide a sense of stability and unwavering support as they work through new feelings and consider new questions. Sharing love, time and attention will make you feel good, and help your children.
Photograph by iStock.com/fstop123.