School shootings continue to be a rare occurrence. Experts report that, statistically, your child is safer from violence and death at school than they are at home or in their neighborhood. It can be difficult to keep that in mind when we hear the death tolls and now see student experiences through social media posts related to school shootings.
It is important to keep this in mind when you speak to your child about school shootings at any age. As a parent, you provide the emotional landscape. Your words, emotion and tone can provide reassurance or add a sense of panic to the conversation. It may be helpful to calm your own thinking and emotions before speaking to your child.
I tend to think that we can often still protect preschoolers and early grade schoolers from the topic entirely. You can strive to protect them from news media and other related conversations. Of course, I’d answer questions if they have them and address any news media they might see. If a preschooler asks, you might say, “yes, that did happen. It was sad. Do you have any questions about that?” and, “your school is a safe place. The teachers and director work to keep you safe while you are there.” If a young child is aware and has questions, all of the following ideas may be helpful.
As difficult as it sounds, this is a topic to bring up directly with older students. With a third grader, you might say, “a scary thing happened at a high school today. Did you hear about it?” By sixth grade, you might start with, “there was shooting at a school today.”
You might then ask what they already know, what they think about it and how they feel. Parents may be surprised by the amount of information children have. Even young students may have unlimited access to the internet or a friend with talkative older siblings who share the details. It is often helpful to ask open ended questions and really listen both to the information and the questions a child has.
It may be helpful to have a few basic sentences pulled together to share the details of what happened. For elementary school students, this might be, “a student brought a gun to his high school. A few classmates and a teacher were shot. The police arrested him.” In middle school and high school, children often already know the details. At any age, it is helpful to clear up any misunderstandings.
A goal of this is to answer all of your child’s questions in an honest, small and age appropriate way. ‘Honest’ means you can’t promise it won’t happen at their school or near their community. ‘Small’ means aim to answer just the question that was asked to avoid overwhelming them with additional information. ‘Age appropriate’ means striving to keep a sense of idealism and safety for younger students and a realistic sense of risk for older students.
It is often helpful to let your child’s questions be the guide for how much information they need. A child who needs more information about their own school’s security or about the criminal charges of a case will likely ask those questions.
At any age, while giving answers also often provide reassurance. For younger students, this would be saying, “your school is a safe place. There are a lot of people there working to keep you safe.” For an older student, this might be discussing what safety measures are in place at their school.
It can be helpful to expect and acknowledge big emotions from children. When a child is upset, angry or frustrated, empathy is often a good place to start; this might be starting with, “I know this is upsetting. I am upset too.” or, “I hear you. You are angry!” You might also validate why they feel that way, “none of this is fair.” or, “I get it, this is a huge and scary thing to think about.”
In addition to an emotional response, older students might have a strong sense of justice and solid ideas about what should be done. It is good here to listen, reflect and stay open to their thoughts and opinions. You might ask open ended questions to help them flesh out their thinking.
Being familiar with the school’s safety plans and drills helps parents in several ways. Knowing what is in place may help to calm a parent or may give the parent a place to put their effort towards bettering the policies. When parents know the drills and plans, it can support having a fuller conversation with their child. Informed parents can also better reinforce the steps of a safety drill or answer related questions.
At any age, it can be helpful to encourage a child to listen to their teacher or follow the instructions during safety drills. For older students, it may be helpful to review the run, hide and, as a last resort fight, approach which is often suggested by safety experts.
It is also helpful to let your child know that they can talk to you about this anytime. Remind them that you are always open to discussing any thoughts, concerns or questions they have. For any big event, it is normal for children to have questions over time. For this issue, it’s even more likely to be a repeated topic of conversation as there will likely be additional events moving forward.
Whether your child brings it up or not, it’s helpful to occasionally follow-up. You might ask how they are doing or if they have any new thoughts or concerns.
By middle school, it is important for parents to also talk to children about having a ‘See Something, Say Something’ approach to their own safety. In most previous school shootings, another child was aware of the thought, the plan or the related actions of the shooter before it happened. In these cases a sibling, friend or classmate had a prior conversation or knew something about the plan. Very rarely was an adult aware. All students should be encouraged to share any such information immediately with an adult.
Middle school and high school students may benefit from more active ways to participate. This includes sending cards of support, fundraising, starting and signing petitions, participating in letter writing campaigns and related marches.
At any age, you might place limits on news media. It’s suggested that children under 8-years-old be protected from news media. Children 8 to 12 years old should have guided exposure only; this means watching with an adult and having discussions about what they are viewing. Older children often have more open access to the internet and seemingly constant news. It may be helpful to speak with them often about what they are seeing and be open for conversations. If older children are stressed by the news, encourage them to take a break from it.
It may be beneficial to look for any signs of stress your child may be experiencing in the weeks and months following an event. These signs include changes in appetite, sleep patterns and socialization; this can be acting out behaviors, changes in mood and lower academic motivation. If a child seems to have significant difficulty, it may be helpful to speak with a guidance counselor, school psychologist, pediatrician or an outside therapist.
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