Talking to your kids about shootings

This article was written in response to the 2012 Sandy Hook school shooting and has been continuously updated since then.

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Updated May 2022

After the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012, I called my brother (the one who is a social worker) who has a lot of experience with counseling victims of tragic events (e.g., homicide). He helped me pull together some ways to help our kids (and ourselves) cope. Below are some tips about helping kids who have heard about the shootings cope with the information:

Have appropriate expectations

    • Normalizing what kids are feeling is key-- be careful that you don't infuse adult feelings on your kids (or think that they can't feel like adults). Your child may be visibly upset or they may not. Don't assume that there is one "right" way to react and don't put emotions on your kid(s) that they don't have.  Everyone will respond to it in their own way, their "normal."
    • None of us is perfect, so don't expect to be able to give a perfect answer (or to have all the answers).
    • Don't let your own feelings and anxiety drive your child to be anxious about the way they are feeling. Give them space. Avoid constantly questioning and probing your child.

Support your child

    • Let your kids know that you love them
    • Create an environment that they feel comfortable asking questions, expressing their emotions and allowing for an open exchange of information that is age appropriate

Shield your child (and yourself) from the media

    • Keep kids away from the media and coverage of the incident.  They just don't need to be exposed to it and it can be very traumatic for them, especially since they are interviewing kids who are pretty shaken up. Instead, read about what happened yourself and give them information in an age-appropriate way. If they do see something you were trying to shield them from (e.g., a website covering the story)-- talk to them about it.
    • Be careful that you don't become a news junkie yourself. Digesting too much of the media during these events can change your world view and make you more paranoid.

Talk and listen to your child

    • Find out what your child knows. They may have overheard just a snippet or have misinformation. Ask, "What did you hear?" and "What do you think?" Collect information before you start supplying information they may not want or need.
    • Acknowledge the facts, but do it in a way that is age appropriate. Leaving out details is fine in this case unless you feel it is necessary to the situation. You know your child better than anyone. Is more information going to make them more worried?
    • Be available to talk to them and let them know that you can ask any questions that they want.
    • Let their tone guide the conversation. Some kids might not want to talk about it, and that's okay. Some kids may want to talk about the incident multiple times as they process the information. This is normal as kids process things at different rates and times.
    • In talking to kids it's okay to acknowledge that you may not have all the answers and that some things just aren't explicable.
    • The "why-would-someone-do-that question" doesn't necessarily have good answers. It's worth saying that you don't understand either why anyone would want to kill people.

Reassure your child

    • Talk to your child about the safety plans that are in place at their school. Don't dismiss their feelings of being scared or worried, but do let them know that something like this is extremely rare.
    • Focus on the people who helped rather than the perpetrator. Let your child know how first responders kept the situation from being even worse than it could have.
    • Acknowledge that this was scary for the parents, teachers and family.
    • Reassure your child that the students, friends and families at the school are getting helped.
    • Validate your child's feelings and that what they feel is normal.
    • Make sure your kids know they are loved and that you'll take care of them.
    • Remind children that school shootings are not a growing epidemic. In fact, your kids are safer in school now than they were in the in the past.  

Watch your own behavior and be kind to yourself:

    • Normalizing your own behavior is important here. Don't feel guilty or ashamed if you don't have all the answers for your kids or aren't the "perfect parent."  There are no right and wrong ways for you yourself to deal with this.
    • Supporting yourself as a parent is as important as supporting your child. You may need to talk to people and "feel it through;" playing "tough" and showing no emotions is not good for anyone. Find ways that are safe in processing your feelings and emotions while not put unnecessary pressure on your kids. If you get upset in front of them it's okay to say, "this is a sad thing and people cry when they feel sad."
    • However, be careful not to put your angst and baggage on them. If you are overwhelmed and anxious it may cause them to feel the same. You need to process as well, but they don't necessarily need to be part of it.
    • Children will model your behavior (and the behavior they see on TV and their peers) so watch your own actions and coping mechanisms.

Watch their behavior:

    • If possible, maintain your family routines and spend time together. (Yes this means unplugging the television, not being on the computer or cell phone.) Optimize times when you are together (e.g., walking home from soccer practice) to gauge their reactions.
    • Some kids aren't comfortable talking about their feelings or are too young to vocalize them. Allow them space to think and process it but leave the door wide open to discuss it.
    • If your child seems visibly upset do watch for signs of trauma such as sleep or eating issues, nightmares, being overly worried about school, and focusing on death. If it is prolonged you may want to seek help.

 

This is a tragic, awful situation and many people I've talked to are shaken up. Call a friend, hug your kids, partners and pets.

Susan Fox, Ph. D. and Daniel Fox, LICSW

Park Slope Parents

 

Further Reading:

Talking to Children About Violence: Tips for Parents and Teachers from the National Association of School Psychologists

Trauma Resources from the Child Mind Institute

Helping Children Cope After a Traumatic Event from the Child Mind Institute

Explaining the News to Our Kids from Common Sense Media

Tips for Talking With and Helping Children and Youth Cope After a Disaster or Traumatic Event from SAMHSA

Information about how to talk to children about school violence from The New York State Center for School Safety

Most People, a story about how most people are good and try to help

The Breaking News, a story about looking for helpers when scary things are happening in the world

When there are no words, we draw, a note of love and support plus drawing exercises to help provide and calm and peace


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