School shootings can deeply affect us and our children. For children who hear about the event, reassure them that it is natural to worry and feel scared about their safety and the safety of their school.
Limit exposure to news coverage
First, please keep children away from news media, at least for a couple of days, especially news coverage on television and other screens. Children do identify with the fallen children and the children who survived the shooting. This is scary for them and they can imagine themselves in that situation.
Talk & Listen to your children
It can help children to first hear you tell them what happened. Be open. They need to know that you are open to talking about it.
Before talking with your children, make sure that you are in a good emotional space–calm, not angry or scared. Children can handle sadness, and you can tell them that this violence is scary for you too. Your children tend to model you.
Start the conversation. Don’t lie. Don’t over-share. How much you share depends on the age of the child. You know your child better than anyone so trust your own assessment of how much to share.
We used to think that there is no need to burden children under 5 years with this information, but now — if they are in school, on school buses and in school yards — even these young children may find out about the event and need support.
Although this took place in an elementary school, the shooter was a 20 year old young person. Adolescents and young adults will, also, be affected by this event. Open up the conversation with them, if they don’t: “Have you heard what happened?… What do you think?…”
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. Parents should acknowledge to children that bad things do happen, but also reassure them with the information that many people are working to keep them safe, including their parents, teachers and local police.
Young children may communicate their fears through play or drawings. Elementary school children will use a combination of play and talking to express themselves. Adolescents are more likely to have the skills to communicate their feelings and fears verbally. Adults should be attentive to a child’s concerns, but also try to help the children put their fears into proportion to the real risk. Again, it is important to reassure children that the adults in their lives are doing everything they can to make their environment — school, home and neighborhood — safe for them.
Parents, teachers and school administrators also need to communicate with one another not only about how to keep kids safe, but about which children might need more reassurance and the best way to give it to them.
From the American Psychological Association:
Keep it simple and age-appropriate. After giving the facts of the event, follow your child’s lead. Some children will be clingy due to the stress that they are feeling. That’s okay. For some children the facts are enough, and they want to move on. Some children will come back later to talk and ask questions. Some won’t.
Be your child’s emotional coach
When children can talk about their feelings it lowers the intensity, makes feelings more manageable, and it connects you with your children heart to heart.
- Allow all feelings. What is your child feeling? What are you feeling?
- Don’t try to fix or change their feelings. Just help them tell their story.
- Help your children to label their feelings as sad, mad, glad, frustrated, scared…
- Show empathy.
Tell them: “This rarely happens.” “Right now we are safe.” “Right now you are safe.” “We and your school will do everything we can to keep you safe.”
Help them to connect this tragic event to something positive
Tell them some positive things about this tragedy–how people showed support–the policemen, the firemen, and the helpers. People brought food and flowers and people all over the world sent supportive wishes.
Role-model and teach coping skills.
Your children need you. No one–neither teachers, nor friends–can take your place. This is a reminder of how important it is to spend time engaged with your children, and to connect with them heart to heart.
- Spend time doing something that they want to do. Spending as few as 15 minutes doing this can make a difference for your child. Boys, especially, often talk more when you are doing something with them.
- Take a walk, watch a funny movie–anything that helps you to cope.
- Perhaps you and your children could do something to show support–send a card, a drawing…
Know the warning signs*
Most children are quite resilient and will return to their normal activities and personality relatively quickly, but parents should be alert to any signs of anxiety that might suggest that a child or teenager might need more assistance. Such indicators could be a change in the child’s school performance, changes in relationships with peers and teachers, excessive worry, school refusal, sleeplessness, nightmares, headaches or stomach aches, or loss of interest in activities that the child used to enjoy. Also remember that every child will respond to trauma differently. Some will have no ill effects; others may suffer an immediate and acute effect. Still others may not show signs of stress until sometime after the event.
From the American Psychological Association:
From my heart to yours.