The more things change, the more they stay the same, or so the saying goes. In January 2021, I wrote a column called “Talking to your kids about recent mob violence.” The recent tragedies in Uvalde, Texas, and several other states bring on the sad occasion to write this piece again. I need to repurpose suggestions I’ve gathered during my 30-plus years in education about how to talk to your kids about scary things. I wish we didn’t have to continually rewrite such tips.
School shootings, something that once seemed unthinkable, now happen with a degree of regularity. A devastating reality of raising children in America today is that parents must be prepared to talk to their kids about mass murders. Here are some suggestions about how to approach the topic.
Let your child’s questions guide the conversation. The best way to figure out how much information kids need is to listen to them. They often ask, who is to blame? What could have been done to prevent this horrible situation? Could it happen at my school? Truthful answers help build trust. Unfortunately, you must state that although school is typically a safe place, there are risks.
In the days and weeks that follow a tragedy, parents should talk to their children about how to cope when they feel concerned or anxious. Remember that less is more. A child may think we are at war because they saw armed guards on TV. Explain that those people work to keep everyone safe. Always keep your answers basic and at your child’s developmental level.
Provide reassurance. Kids are often concerned about personal safety for themselves and their family. How they react to various news stories and questions that arise will give you an idea about their specific concerns. You can offer comfort such as: “We are all safe.” You can’t promise that their school will never have a shooting, but you can communicate truthfully that school shootings are, in fact, very rare. Remind them that they have protocols and drills at school to keep them safe. Avoid graphic details. Do your best to actively listen, rather than trying to take away children’s pain.
I recommend the book “Once I Was Very Very Scared,” by Chandra Ghosh Ippen, for the preschool set. In the story, many animals go through scary experiences, but each reacts differently and has their own way of coping. Parents of older children can Google “Helping Students After a School Shooting” for a list of resources from the American School Counselor Association. Parents are sometimes afraid to bring up school shootings with their children because they don’t want to scare them. But children will often have heard about a school shooting from friends and the media. So bringing it up can actually alleviate any anxiety they might be feeling. Avoiding potentially scary topics can make them scarier to children.
It will take time for parents to comfort children and help them process such tragic events. We need to be patient. Sometimes, especially with young kids, we need to have these conversations over and over. Proceed in little chunks. They might not be able to digest everything in one sitting.
For young children, limit screen time to non-news coverage programming. Also, the younger the child, the more likely they are to see each broadcast as a new attack. Many children saw the broadcast of September 11th plane crashes as “hundreds of planes crashing again and again.” School shootings are horrific, scary, and important. Thus, they dominate the media. As a result, we can think of them as a much bigger threat than they really are. The more we watch them, the greater probability our minds create of their occurring.
Statistically, school shootings actually are not very common. So while they are a threat, the likelihood that one will personally affect any of us individually is slim. Some anxiety is warranted; debilitating anxiety is not. If you feel that you are more anxious than you should be, a good first step is always to take a break from any media that might be focusing your attention in an unhealthy direction. Learn and understand some coping strategies for yourself, then help your child understand their emotions. But if you’re just watching the same coverage over and over again and it’s not offering anything new that’s important to your family, then disconnect.
Anxiety is meant to prepare us for action, so channel the worries you are feeling into something proactive you can do. Paint. Write poetry. Volunteer in the community. Donate to relevant causes. Stick to routines. The unpredictable is scary for children, and a predictable routine is especially reassuring when children are frightened or unsure. Even if kids are anxious or fearful, there’s a benefit to going to school and maintaining daily activities.
Finally, create a strong community. In any time of unrest or crisis, gathering friends and family provides much needed support for grown-ups and children alike. Having more people around also means that you will have more resources to share with your children.