Talking to Your Kids About School Shootings
Six tips for talking to children about gun violence at school.
A friend of mine called me this morning in a state of distress. His daughter was locked down in her elementary school classroom yesterday after a teenager threatened to come into her school and shoot up the campus. Fear and panic-stricken, he sat by his phone getting updates from her teachers throughout the day. The kids were safe, hiding under their desks for hours until police could safely evacuate the campus. Luckily, all teachers and students got out of the school physically unharmed. Emotionally, however, everyone is left with lingering scars.
School shootings—and their threat—are becoming more and more common in the United States. The list is so long that I can’t even put them all in this document. In 2022, there have already been 27 school shootings in the United States. Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, is simply the most recent of an ever-growing list. According to the Gun Violence Archive, almost 450 children between the ages of 0-11 have been killed due to gun violence so far this year.
This kind of terror and tragedy is almost unimaginable for most of us. If you’ve been directly affected by a threat, you may be left in a state of shock, paralyzed by fear and anxiety. Even if a school shooting hasn’t directly impacted you or your children, it’s next to impossible to avoid the news reports that document gun violence daily. This leaves many parents unsure of how to talk to their kids about such an emotion-laden and deeply disturbing topic.
For any of you struggling to find ways to talk to your kids about gun violence in school, here are six suggestions to start the conversations.
Tips for Talking to Kids About School Gun Violence
- Plan What You Want to Share. Given that talking about school shootings is such a difficult topic, it helps to think about what you do and don’t want to share in advance. This will be based mainly on your child’s age and development ability to process difficult life situations. In general, telling them any of the horrific details of school shootings is not necessary or helpful but making clear that you want them to feel safe talking to you about school violence is important. If you share any of the facts, tell the truth at a level they can understand without giving too many details that might scare them.
- Choose a Quiet Time and Space. Set the stage for your conversation by selecting a time and space that can be uninterrupted, calm, and safe. You want your child to have your full and undivided attention without distractions.
- Listen to Them First. Start the conversation in an open-ended way. Make clear that you’re interested in what your child has heard, what they’re thinking about, and how they’re feeling. Let them share in a safe space with you. You may want to start by saying something like, “Have you heard anything about kids getting hurt at school?” or “A really bad thing happened at a school today… have you heard about anything like that.” If your child was directly affected, start with something like, “What happened today was a really big deal. How do you feel about it? Can you tell me about your experience?” Then listen.
- Reflect Back to Them. As your child shares with you, try to validate their experience by reflecting back what you hear them saying. Elaborate on anything meaningful with follow-up questions or statements like, “That sounds really scary” or “It sounds like your teacher really handled that well to help you stay safe.”
- Share Your Feelings. After your child has shared anything they’d like to, it’s helpful to share your thoughts and feelings about the situation. Share that you’re angry, scared, or dumbfounded. You’re one of the most significant supports and role models for your child, so share your internal experience—it shows that you’re human, you care, and you’re in this together with your child.
- Be Reassuring. At the end of your talk, be very clear that you, their school, and your community want to keep everyone safe. That you’re willing to talk about this anytime your child wants to and that, if they ever feel unsafe at school, you want to know about it.
The Naked Truth is This: As school shootings and their threat become increasingly common, it’s important to have continued conversations with our children about it. Helping them express their feelings, unpack their experiences, and express our own outrage as parents are important to help us all build resilience.
Copyright Cortney S. Warren, Ph.D., ABPP
Note: I cannot respond to personal requests for advice over the internet. Best on your continued journey.
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