How to Talk to Your Kids About School Shootings — Without Scaring Them
One of the trickiest aspects of parenting is to know when and how to explain complex ideas. Telling kids there’s no such thing as monsters, telling them where babies come from … even those are pretty straightforward. But what about topics like racism, sexism, and violence? As much as we hate to admit it — and hate to be here — we live in an age, and a nation, of gun violence. The most recent tragedy, the March 27 school shooting at Covenant School in Nashville, Tennessee, is the latest in a heartbreaking epidemic of gun violence in the U.S.; there have been well over 100 mass shootings in this country in 2023 alone, and it’s only March. Thirteen of those have been school shootings, occurring at the place where we should feel confident that our kids will be safe.
So how do you talk to your kids about school shootings — without scaring the living daylights out of them in the process?
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Choose your words (& body language) wisely
Dr. Samantha Rodman, a North Bethesda, Maryland-based clinical psychologist, tells SheKnows that the most important thing when planning serious, complicated conversations with kids is language — and that includes body language. “There is no benefit to making kids extremely anxious by using an anxious tone and body language,” Rodman adds. “If kids have anxiety or fear about school, first observe how you are acting in front of them,” Rodman suggests. “If you act scared, they will absorb this feeling and act scared as well.”
If you yourself are scared or have actual concerns about the school’s safety, reach out to the school administrators to address them. “The more reassured the parent is, the more reassured the child will be,” Licensed Masters Social Worker Vincent J. Acciaioli tells SheKnows.
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In an article for Yale Medicine, Steven Marans, MSW, PhD and Carrie Epstein, LCSW, co-directors of the Yale Center for Traumatic Stress and Recovery at the Yale Child Study Center, echoed the importance of keeping your own emotions in check. “Your ability to listen calmly to your children’s concerns is one of the most powerful ways of helping them feel safe and secure,” the article states. “When there are scary things going on in the larger world around them, seeing that parents can still parent may be the most reassuring experience that frightened children can have.”
As the U.S. gun death rate skyrockets, many schools, including preschools and elementary schools, have adopted lockdown drills. But kids and parents alike should view those drills as helpful safety precautions — not a call for alarm. “Emphasize that schools are safe, and that any drills or safety programs are done to help the adults protect the children,” says Acciaioli.
Explain to kids that the best way to avoid getting hurt is to follow those safety precautions as best they can — while still living their lives. Rodman urges parents not to give in to fear-mongering. “It is similar to how you talk to kids about car accidents, which are far more common but discussed much less,” Rodman explains. “You’re not going to stop driving because of car accidents and not stop going to school because of a potential shooting.”
“When you discuss lockdown drills, emphasize how rare it is to have anything dangerous occur — and tell your kids to listen to their teachers,” Rodman adds.
Tailor your discussion to your child’s age
“These topics have to be discussed at an age-appropriate level — without making kids excessively afraid about going to school,” Rodman says. So stick to the facts and keep it calm and simple, especially with young kids. The intellectual difference between a first-grader and a junior in high school is huge, and so parents should adjust how much information they provide while keeping their child feeling secure.
“Young children in general are much more concrete and emotionally reactive to information and will have trouble reasoning through their fear,” explains Acciaioli, urging parents to “follow their lead based on the questions they ask.” Kids who are 7 years old or younger need very little specific information about school shootings; the number one message they need to keep them safe, Rodman explains, is to listen to their teachers and follow directions. When talking to a very young child, this is an especially important takeaway.
Kyle D. Pruett, M.D., clinical professor of Child Psychiatry at Yale School of Medicine, told The Washington Post how to best handle the common questions from kids that may arise.
“When your child hears about an upsetting incident he will likely want to know more and is likely to ask for details such as: Who died? Did it hurt? Will that happen to me? Why would somebody do that? Where were the police? Were they bad people? Where were the parents? Are we at war? Before trying to answer your child’s question, make sure you heard it correctly by asking the child the question back, with a ‘What do you think?’ tacked on the end,” Dr. Pruett advises. “By listening to their answer you will get a better idea of what they are truly asking about and you can address their specific concern.”
Kids who are in middle school are old enough to see the news and will likely know about school shootings happening around the country. Rodman suggests parents have open dialogues with their older kids. Make sure they understand what they are seeing and hearing and make sure they feel safe coming to you to discuss their thoughts and feelings.
Older kids can also handle more in-depth information, but consider your child’s tolerance for scary subjects. Is your kid extremely sensitive? Every child is different, and taking their emotional and intellectual needs into account before giving any detailed information about topics as heavy as school shootings is wise.
Encourage them to speak out
“Encourage a child to immediately report to a trusted adult anything they observe at school that causes them to feel unsafe,” Acciaioli advises. “Like with bullying, remind them that reporting is different from tattling.”
Older kids can also speak out on the issue of gun violence and preventing school shootings via activism; help your teen look for volunteer opportunities with organizations such as Students Demand Action, March For Our Lives, Sandy Hook Promise, and other grassroots community efforts they might participate in — in any number of ways — to help the cause.
Know when to seek help
It’s completely normal for a child to be anxious about lockdown drills at their school or shootings in the news. But if you notice “there is significant fear and anxiety that is stopping them from attending [school] or they cry or have nightmares, then it is a good idea to reach out to a child therapist,” Rodman urges.
And “children do not always convey their worries and fears verbally,” adds Acciaioli. “A parent should watch for behavioral signs that a child is experiencing excessive anxiety or worry. This might include fears of going to bed at night, regression such as the child becoming more ‘clingy’ with the parent or the child ruminating about something happening to them or their loved ones. If a child has experienced past trauma or recent losses, this could intensify their emotional sensitivity.”
Modern parenting can sometimes feel like a booby-trapped landscape of difficult topics. The bottom line is that you love your child and give them every opportunity to grow in productive and positive ways. While some kids thrive on lots of information and detailed plans, others will roll with the punches without much data.
Parents should always feel supported. It takes a village to raise great people, after all. If you find that the topic of school shootings is too much for your child, you can reach out to your child’s school guidance counselor or a child therapist for resources to best support them.
A version of this article was originally published in 2019.
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