In so many ways, the world our children are growing up in is very different from the world that we may remember growing up. There are some wonderful changes, such as a greater awareness of different learning styles and increased educational and job opportunities. There are also ways in which things are more difficult, such as increased stress and competition in schools, the dangers associated with electronics and the internet, and the number of mass shootings that have been taking place, both in schools and in other important places in a community such as places of worship or at large community gatherings. It can be very difficult to know how to approach our children when there is a mass shooting. It is easy to feel overwhelmed trying to figure out what to say and what to hold back, what feelings to show and what to keep inside, and how to best help your child deal with the event. Although each child may process these events differently and require a slightly different response from their parents, here are some general guidelines for how to talk to your children about mass shootings. The guidelines are divided into four different age groups ranging from pre-k and kindergarten through adolescence.
- The American Psychiatric Association (APA) recommends that you do not talk with your children about mass shootings until they are 8 years old unless they are directly affected by the event or if you believe they will hear about it from other sources. Because of the multitude of news sources (television, radio, various internet screens), it may be likely that your child has heard about the event.
- Before speaking to your elementary age child, it is best to decide what you want to say and what message you want to convey, this way you go into the conversation feeling more prepared.
- It is best to start by asking your child what they know about the event, this way they are leading the conversation and you have the opportunity to clear up any misinformation and immediately answer any questions they may have.
- With any age child, this is a good opportunity to model your own coping skills to your child, such as speaking in a calm voice and talking about how you deal with frightening thoughts or use social supports during difficult times.
- If you are watching or listening to news of the event, make sure that your younger children are not around as this repeated exposure can be detrimental to children.
- Children may be looking for reassurance that they are safe, that this will not happen at their school. Although this is not a promise you can make, you can talk to your children about all of the adults around them whose job it is to keep them safe such as teachers and school personnel, police officers, firefighters and paramedics. Since most schools have lockdown and other safety procedures in place, you can talk about how the school is prepared in the event of a shooting.
- Let your child know that it is ok to have big feelings about this and validate what they are feeling. Some possible phrases to use are “I understand that you are feeling scared” or “I know this is really hard”. It is possible that your child will not have any noticeable reaction in the moment and that is fine too, let them know that you are around to talk about this whenever they would like so that it does not feel like the topic is closed after the initial conversation ends.
The important message for children at this age is safety. Children need to know that there are many adults whose job it is to keep them safe, and these adults are always working very hard to keep everyone safe. If your children ask about something like this happening at their school, although you may have urge to reassure your children that this type of event will never happen to them, a more realistic message is to state that it is highly unlikely and if it did, there are many people and who will be working to make sure that everyone is safe.
Elementary age children:
Children at this age can have a slightly longer conversation than those in pre-k or kindergarten but it still may not be a very long conversation. At this age it is still best not to use images of the event in the discussion.
Middle school age children:
As children get older, the conversation may be longer and more involved. Answer any questions they may have with age appropriate language and details, and know that it is ok to tell your children “I don’t know” if they ask a question to which you do not know how to answer.
High school age children:
Teenagers will be able to process the events differently and may want to have a longer conversation about what happened. They may also prefer to talk with their friends instead of parents and that it ok too. It is important to let your teen know that you are there if they want to talk, without feeling forced. With teenagers, actions and solutions will also be important to them. It can be helpful to discuss possible actions they can take in response to the event such as attending a rally, as well as talk about what actions are currently taking place such as increased security measures at schools or safe gun legislation.
At any age, children may react to a shooting with increased difficulty paying attention, anxiety, irritability or defiance, difficulty separating from caregivers or wanting to stay home, changes in sleep and appetite and thinking a lot about the event. All of these are normal reactions and should abate within a few weeks. If these reactions persist or interfere with a child’s ability to function, the child may need the help of a mental health provider to learn how to cope with their feelings.