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What Do I Say to My Kids About School Shootings?

How to Talk to Children About Tough Topics

Recent school shootings have led to a lot of tough conversations between parents and their children, and many parents struggle to find the right words to address the events. While there's no right or wrong way to talk about school shootings, I can offer some advice about how to answer questions and calm frazzled nerves.

First, assess your own feelings

You can't help your children process a tragic event unless you have a firm grasp on your own feelings. So, before you talk to your children, pay attention to how you feel. Spend some time working through the anger, confusion, and any other emotions that you have. It's normal to feel afraid and uncertain, and this is your time to process.

You might even want to speak to other adults, especially if you have friends and family members with children of their own. You can discuss how you'll approach the topic with your kids and brainstorm together while working through your feelings.

Do you need to talk to your kids about school shootings?

If your child knows about recent school shootings, of course you'll want to talk with them. But what about children who aren't aware, especially younger kids?

According to Dr. Deborah Gilboa , “If it doesn't directly affect your family, kids under 8 do not need to hear about this.”

This isn't universal advice for all children, however. If your young child will hear about school shootings, or if the event happened close to your home, you need to talk it through with them. Try to shield them from graphic photos, though — images are difficult to forget and can lead to lasting trauma.

The younger the child, the simpler the story

When discussing school shootings with young children, keep things simple and try to focus on a positive takeaway message. You might say that bad things happen, but there are always good people who help others. The key thing is to reassure your child that the adults in their life are doing everything possible to keep them safe.

Older children will be able to talk about their feelings with greater awareness, and teens might even be spurred to take action by writing their legislators or organizing events. The best thing you can do is listen empathetically and offer support.

Listen, be honest, and be aware

The American Psychological Association offers this advice to parents :

“Psychologists who work in the area of trauma and recovery advise parents to use the troubling news of school shootings as an opportunity to talk and listen to their children. It is important, say these psychologists, to be honest.”

You can't fib and say that nothing bad happened, or that it's just a story. Children will learn the truth eventually, and maintaining an honest and open dialogue will help them process trauma while demonstrating that you, the parent, are here for them.

Even after the initial conversations are finished, it's still important to be aware of your child's emotional state. Many kids are quite resilient, but school shootings can also lead to understandable anxiety. If your child's school performance starts to dip, if they seem more anxious, or if any other warning signs develop, therapy might be the best option .