How to talk to children about school shootings

February 21, 2018

In the aftermath of any incident of mass violence, it’s easy for all of us to feel shaken and distressed. These acts of violence can pose a serious threat to our worldview and make us doubt our own sense of safety and security. School shootings can be especially troubling for children and adolescents, who normally view their school environment as a safe haven. Below are some tips for concerned parents looking to help their children cope after learning about a mass shooting.

Talk about it

In this day and age, children will most likely hear about a school shooting through social media or their friends, so it’s helpful to raise the issue with your kids to ensure you directly address any confusion or concerns they might have. That being said, it’s best to allow them to ask you questions, as opposed to providing them with a lot of information upfront. They might need to process only bits of information at a time. This information should also be tailored to your child’s age and/or developmental stage, especially since younger children (e.g., preschoolers) may not even be aware of the situation, eliminating the immediate need to discuss it. You could say something like: “You may have heard about something today that happened at a school in Florida. What exactly did you hear about it?” You can then offer to answer any questions they might have about the incident and remind them that you are glad to talk with them about the subject at any point in the future. Children will often come back and revisit their questions or feelings as time passes, or as they learn more about the event.

Acknowledge fears 

Many children will have some concerns about returning to school after hearing about a mass shooting. It’s helpful to validate and normalize any fears or worries your children might have. You might say something like: “I know it’s easy to worry after something scary like this happens. I’m here to talk about any worries you might have.” At the same time, you can remind your children that the adults in their lives will continue to do everything they can to keep them safe, and that their own school has a safety protocol or plan in place for similar events. You can also help to distinguish “adult worries” (e.g., keeping children safe, protecting loved ones from gun violence, learning more about government policies) from “kid worries,” (e.g., keeping up grades, being a good friend, cleaning the bedroom) giving them permission to release some of the “adult worries” they may be carrying with them.

Reestablish a sense of safety

It’s often helpful to limit your child’s exposure to media following an act of mass violence. The constant barrage of upsetting imagery, including graphic coverage and witness testimonials, even political unrest, can create more distress for both children and adults alike. If you see your child watching something on TV about the event, you can turn it off and talk about what they just saw. Children will often seek out more information from media when they have ongoing questions about the event, so reminding them about your availability to talk and answer questions can help ensure the dissemination of accurate and helpful information.

Take care of yourself

Children are often attuned to the anxiety and distress of parents, so one of the best things you can do as a caregiver is take good care of yourself. Just as we encourage parents to put on their own oxygen mask before helping their children during a plane crash, we suggest that parents get the support they need in order to better take care of their children. This can take the form of turning off the TV, getting adequate sleep, eating healthy foods, exercising, connecting with friends or family members and seeking help if distress levels are interfering with daily function.

Recognize markers of mental/behavioral health problems

It’s common for children and young adults to experience anxiety and/or behavioral problems in the immediate aftermath of a mass shooting. For example, difficulties with sleep, inattention or irritability are relatively common within the first few weeks. But, the vast majority of adolescents will be able to quickly resume their normal daily activities and process the event in a healthy way. Parents should keep an eye out for certain “red flags” that could indicate a need for psychosocial evaluation. These risk markers include:

  • Intense fears about separation from their primary caregiver
  • Frequent nightmares and issues with sleeping
  • Frequent outbursts of anger or irritability
  • Engagement in risky behaviors like alcohol/drug use, reckless driving, etc.
  • Any suggestion of suicidal ideation or self-harm
  • Inability to carry out normal daily tasks due to high levels of distress

Maintain optimism

Although it’s easy to feel stressed, hopeless and helpless following tragedies like a mass shooting, children can benefit from the knowledge of good things that might ultimately come from these horrific events. For example, we can highlight the heroic efforts of law enforcement officials and first responders, watch communities come together, make collaborative efforts to push policy change and attempt to carry on the important legacies of the individuals who perished. In the words of Fred Rogers: “When I would see scary things on the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, in times of disaster, I remember my mother’s words, and I am comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.”

The Trauma and Grief Center at Texas Children’s Hospital is a Treatment and Services Adaptation Center of the National Child Traumatic Stress Network. For more resources and information about how to help children cope after a mass shooting, click here.

Post by:

Julie Kaplow, PhD, ABPP

Dr. Kaplow serves as Director of the Trauma and Grief Center, a SAMHSA-funded Treatment and Service Adaptation Center of the National Child Traumatic Stress Network. In this role, she oversees evidence-based assessment, treatment, and research with youth and families exposed to traumas and/or...

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