How To Talk with Kids about a School Shooting — (Re: Tragedy in CT 12/14/12)

[ By on December 15, 2012 ]

How To Talk with Kids about a School Shooting

“We chat, talk, tweet, stream, and absorb violence with a hunger. It’s just so horrifying that sometimes it’s hard not to watch. We follow along in bed, on the bus, in our cars (!), and during our face to face time with loved ones and family. This news is upsetting and torrential. Many of us are left feeling a bit helpless or vulnerable. So are our children.” – Wendy Sue Swanson

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.” – Mr Rogers

Read more here:

When a tragedy happens that shakes our faith in human nature and our own sense of safety in the world, it’s tough to talk with our kids about it.  How can we reassure them that we’ll keep them safe, when we suddenly aren’t sure that we can?The situation is so disturbing to us as adults that our children are likely to pick up on our upset. It’s important to think about the effect on our children before just flooding kids with our own raw emotions.  So before you talk with your child about a tragedy like a school shooting, reassure yourself.  Your child is no less safe than he or she was last week.  The chances of your family being touched directly by such a tragedy are much, much, much less than the chances of a car accident, and you get in a car every day.

If you have a hard time believing this, it’s a red flag that you’ve exposed yourself too intimately to the news. It’s our job as parents to manage our own emotions so they don’t adversely affect our children. Every time you see more news about this tragedy, you’re sending yourself back into fight or flight mode.  It’s hard not to watch, I know.  In the face of the unbelievable, we find ourselves obsessed. But if you turn off the news, you’ll be better able to stay centered, and better able to help your child.

And use common sense in discussing such an issue in front of children.  Remember, your child is taking his cues from you.  If you’re anxious or hysterical when you’re on the phone with a friend talking about this, you’re giving your child the message that he’s in danger–no matter what you say to him directly.

Start from the premise that your goal is to help your child integrate the news and feel safe.  Use this as an opportunity to reassure and give age-appropriate information so he has a context for whatever he hears from his friends.

1. Don’t leave your TV on.  If there are kids under the age of thirteen at your house, your TV should stay off whenever there’s a public tragedy, or you’re repeatedly traumatizing your kids. Knowing there’s been a shooting is one thing.  Hearing over and over about the blood and bodies and screams is quite another.  Your children don’t need those horrific images replaying in their minds.  Even babies and toddlers who don’t understand the news coverage show elevated stress hormones when exposed to upset voices.

2. Remember that your child will pick up on your emotions. If you’re upset by what you’ve just read or heard, calm yourself before interacting with your child, and don’t try to talk with your children about the events at that moment. Find a way to process your emotions first.  How?

  • Talk (privately) to another adult.
  • Breathe deeply.
  • Shake tension out of your hands.
  • Tap your acupuncture points to relieve emotional pressure and calm yourself (this is called EFT, there are instructions available here)

3. Be age-appropriate.   Babies and Toddlers will not need to know about a disaster at all.  And there is no need to raise the issue with your preschooler unless they have been exposed to it.  However, many preschool and school-age children will hear about the shooting from someone else and will need your help to process it.

4. Ask your child what she knows.  Even preschoolers may well hear about a school shooting from other children, and they may well ask you questions. If they bring it up, start by finding out what they have heard. “What did you hear about that?”  Listen to their answers before jumping in to explain.  Repeat to be sure you’ve understood: “So Jimmy said that this bad guy had a gun and killed children at a school?”

Ask your child what she thinks about the information. Most likely she will parrot what she’s heard, but she may well give you some insight into what she needs to hear from you. 

5. Explain simply, in terms your child can understand. Keep your explanation very simple: “This man was very sick in his head…His mind wasn’t working right…He should never have had a gun….He went to the school because his mom worked there… He is dead now…He can’t hurt anyone else now.” 

6. Answer questions. Your child may have questions about whether it will be safe for him to go to his own school. The answer, of course, is yes: “Luckily, most people’s brains work just fine.…..And the grown-ups in charge at your school are making sure that your school is completely safe. They do not let anyone into the school without checking that the person is safe and has a good reason to be there.”

Your child may have heard that the gunman in the Connecticut shooting killed his mother. Explain that he was angry at his mom, but that we all get angry and we don’t kill people. The reason this young man killed his mother and other people is that he had an unusual mental illness, which meant his brain was not working right and he was violent. Stress that most people who are mentally ill would not do something like this; it is very rare.

Tailor your explanation to your child’s developmental understanding.  With all ages, let your child talk as much as he or she will.  Answer questions truthfully, but with as limited information as possible.  There is no reason to give your child details he isn’t asking you for.  As much as possible keep your own upset from coloring your presentation of the facts.

7. Listen and allow feelings. Talking to your child about a tragedy like this does not cause her to get upset; any child who hears about a school shooting will have some upset feelings. If your child senses that she isn’t allowed to get upset, cry or show you that she’s frightened or upset, then she’ll push those feelings down inside, where they’ll cause nightmares or anxiety. If, instead, you accept and reflect your child’s feelings, those feelings will tumble out for a few days but then will dissipate. The most helpful thing you can do is listen to your child’s fears, hug her, and reassure her.

8. Stress that this is a rare occurrence. Be aware that your child will need your reassurance that although we are all connected, and we feel for the people who were touched by this tragedy, she is safe.  Stress that incidents like this are very rare. Add that it’s the job of grown-ups to keep kids safe, and that you and the other adults in your child’s life will always work very hard to keep your child safe.

9. Be prepared to answer more existential questions. As with all tragedies, children of all ages may respond with spiritual questions about WHY something like this happens.  How could this be allowed, in a “good” universe?  Every parent will have a different response depending on her own life view, but an affirmation of hope and compassion is always in order:  “We don’t know why, Sweetie.  I agree, it’s tragic, and it isn’t  fair.  Let’s use this to remind us that every day is precious and every person is to be treasured, and let’s think about what we can do to help.”

Finally, offer some hope: “There were lots of wonderful people helping each other….the good thing about people is that whenever there’s a tragedy, you will always find people helping each other.”  

10. Respect your child’s individual reactions.  Every child processes in her own way. Some children will become very sad and cry, and that is to be honored.  Some will listen, change the subject, and then bring it up to ask you more questions at bedtime. Others will shrug it off, which doesn’t mean they aren’t compassionate but that they can only handle so much of the information at a time.

Be prepared for the issue to come up again with questions out of the blue, or for your child to need repeated reassurance.  If your child seems very interested, help him process his emotions.  For instance:

  • Encourage him to draw pictures of what happened
  • Ask him to write a story about what happened
  • Suggest he do some research on mental illness or gun control.

Some children will want to tell you about the upsetting event over and over, which helps them work out their emotions.  Plan to spend extra time at bedtime helping your child fall asleep feeling safe and secure.

11. Be aware that children’s anxieties often surface in other ways.  Children may develop sudden fears — of being alone in a room, or left with a babysitter.  They may complain of stomach aches, might have nightmares or wet the bed.  They may “over-react” and have a meltdown about something that seems trivial to you, which allows them to let off stress by crying or raging. Children who are afraid of losing you to death might “test” you by misbehaving to see if you love them enough not to abandon them. In all discussions about scary news, reassure your child that you will always do everything you can to keep her safe. You can’t do this too many times.

12. Empower your child.  Research shows that feeling unable to do something to help make things better makes people of all ages feel hopeless, cynical, and less compassionate. Discuss with your child what your family can do to help, such as:

  • Send messages of love and support
  • Give blood.
  • Remember the families in your family grace and prayers.

How to Help Children of Different Ages

Preschoolers (ages three, four and five) can’t always tell the difference between a newscast and a tragedy unfolding in front of their eyes. It is critical to shield them from TV news.

Preschoolers are concrete, egocentric thinkers and often think that if something bad happens, they must have caused it, so they may think that somehow the children who were shot caused the incident by being “bad.” Make it clear that the victims at the school did not know the gunman and did not do anything to cause the shooting. All children “misbehave” at times and it does not cause bad things to happen to them.

If your child seems to have a lot of questions about this or any other scary news issue, encourage him to express his feelings through art or play. For instance, maybe he wants to draw a picture, or act out a scene of the medics helping people.

If he’s exploring issues of good and evil, he might develop a sudden fascination with guns or want to pretend shoot.  Don’t be horrified — he’s processing.  Just be sure to say “It’s ok to play pretend guns because they can’t hurt anyone, but real guns are VERY dangerous….If you ever see a real gun, any time, any place, you must leave the room immediately and call me, and I will come get you.”

6-9 year olds – As with younger kids, if your child brings up the shooting, ask what they’ve heard and repeat it. Ask what they think and answer their questions.

If your child doesn’t bring it up and you are sure she hasn’t heard, then you don’t need to raise the issue. However, sometimes kids hear things and don’t raise them with you.  If there is any chance your child could have heard about the school shooting, start a conversation by asking your child “Do you feel safe at school?”  If your child has heard about the shooting, it will certainly come up.  If he hasn’t heard, he may answer, “Yes, what do you mean?” and you can reassure without having to lie by simply saying “Your school works hard to keep everybody safe. I’m glad you feel safe there.”

Be age-appropriate, which means not over-sharing.  Kids don’t need ANY gory details.  Research shows that kids this age do have nightmares in response to TV news images, so they should still be protected from electronic news coverage. Recognize that kids’ primary need is to be reassured of their safety. Feeling they live in a lawless world where evil runs rampant and they could get shot at school is not helpful to them. Instead, emphasize that the teachers in the school reacted promptly by taking all the kids into bathrooms and locking the doors to keep the kids safe. 

9-12 year olds – Don’t be fooled by your preteen’s sophistication.  Older kids still need your reassurance that they’re safe.  Begin by asking them what they have heard. Give them an explanation like the one above. Then ask them what they think, to have a real discussion. When things like this happen, we feel powerless and afraid.  Having a problem-solving discussion is empowering. You might ask questions like:

  • This man was angry, but he was also mentally ill to have done such a thing.  Anger by itself would not cause this. Have you ever seen anyone so angry they hurt someone else? What do you think is the best way to manage anger?
  • I wonder what kinds of clues were missed that would have showed how unhinged this man was?
  • What do you think we can do to help people who have a mental problem like this?
  • Do you think there should be more control over who can buy a gun?  Any gun, or particular kinds of guns?
  • What do you think should happen to someone who commits a crime like this?
  • Do you think that it’s a good thing to watch the news about an incident like this?

When you have a chance, guide the discussion to heroism.  There’s no way to make sense of a tragedy like this, but we can take some solace in the fact that dire circumstances can call forth the best in human beings.  There are always ordinary people who act with great courage to shield others, or to help others.  So help your child focus on that heroism.

  • What do you think you would do in a situation like that?
  • The teachers were heroes and protected the kids.  What do you think it would take to do that?

Obviously, you’ll ask questions that are appropriate to the age of your child.  You don’t have to have answers to these questions to raise them, and there are no “right” answers.  Thinking and talking about the questions that arise as we experience “big things” in life is an important part of children’s moral development.

Teens –  Tragedies like this can shake a teen’s sense of living in a safe world, just as he or she is experimenting with more independence.  Ask questions and listen for anxiety in the answers.  Reassure your teen about how rare such an event is.  Be sure to use the opportunity to explore the idea of heroism.  Teens are exploring their identities, working out how they fit into the world, and how they can make a contribution.  Discussions in which they envision themselves as courageous and heroic are always empowering.

Teens are also sorting out just what their connection is to all of humanity.  Our hearts tell us we have some responsibility to all humans, even those far across the country.  They’ll be empowered by a discussion about ways they can help.

Sometimes teens defend against disturbing news with cynicism about news coverage.  If your child raises this issue, you can use the opportunity for a “media literacy” discussion, but remind your child that the fact that the news media hypes stories to attract viewers doesn’t diminish the pain of the events.


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