Be patient and be a role model: How to talk to kids about the Nashville shooting

Parents are once again facing the news of another deadly U.S. school shooting and the question of how to talk about it with their children and teens.

Monday's shooting happened at an elementary school in Nashville. Three 9-year-old children and three adults in their 60s were killed. Police killed the shooter, who was 28-year-old Audrey Elizabeth Hale, according to media reports.

The Nashville incident is the worst school shooting to occur in the United States since a May 24 mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, killed 19 students, two teachers and injured 17 others.

Children who are struggling with their thoughts and feelings about the stories and images of the shooting may turn to trusted adults for help, according to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, which was created by Congress in 2000 and is coordinated by the UCLA-Duke University National Center for Child Traumatic Stress (NCCTS).

There are ways to effectively respond. Some of the consistent expert advice for parents includes being patient, being a positive role model, gently correcting any inaccurate information, and limiting kids' exposure to news coverage.

"The important thing is for parents to share just the basic facts that they know, and then to allow their children to ask what they need to know," Phoenix psychologist Paula McCall wrote in an email. "Then we answer the questions honestly, and we also respond honestly if we don’t know the answers."

McCall, who is nationally certified as a school psychologist, says it's important to validate whatever feelings children and adolescents show, and to recognize that every child may react in a different way. It's normal for some children to experience fears about a shooting happening in their own school, and it's also OK if children seem relatively unaffected, she wrote.

"If our children are expressing fears about what is happening in their own school, it’s important not to minimize it and just tell them that everything will be okay," she wrote. "Rather, we can ask them some questions about what it is that could make their school feel safer, and encourage action, such as communication with the principal about any actual concerns that they have."

It's fine for adults to express their own feelings, McCall says.

"We are very important role models to our children, and it’s okay for them to see us concerned and frustrated and angry and sad," she wrote. "It shows that communication of feelings is okay, which makes it more likely for our own children to share their feelings with us, too. "

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network offers the following tips for parents, guardians and caregivers of children and adolescents:

  • Start the conversation. Talk about the shooting with your child. Not talking about it can make the event even more threatening in your child’s mind. Silence suggests that what has occurred is too horrible even to speak about or that you do not know what has happened.

  • What does your child already know? Start by asking what your child/teen already has heard about the events from the media and from friends. Listen carefully; try to figure out what he or she knows or believes. As your child explains, listen for misinformation, misconceptions, and underlying fears or concerns. Understand that this information will change as more facts about the shooting are known.

  • Gently correct inaccurate information. If your child/teen has inaccurate information or misconceptions, take time to provide the correct information in simple, clear, age appropriate language.

  • Encourage your child to ask questions, and answer those questions directly. Your child/teen may have some difficult questions about the incident. For example, she may ask if it is possible that it could happen at your workplace; she probably is really asking whether it is “likely.” The concern about re-occurrence is an issue for caregivers and children/teens alike. While it is important to discuss the likelihood of this risk, she is asking if she is safe. This may be a time to review plans your family has for keeping safe in the event of any crisis situation. Do give any information you have on the help and support the victims and their families are receiving. Like adults, children/teens are better able to cope with a difficult situation when they have the facts about it. Having question-and-answer talks gives your child ongoing support as he or she begins to cope with the range of emotions stirred up by this tragedy.

  • Limit media exposure. Limit your child’s exposure to media images and sounds of the shooting, and do not allow your very young children to see or hear any TV/radio shooting-related messages. Even if they appear to be engrossed in play, children often are aware of what you are watching on TV or listening to on the radio. What may not be upsetting to an adult may be very upsetting and confusing for a child. Limit your own exposure as well. Adults may become more distressed with nonstop exposure to media coverage of this shooting.

  • Be a positive role model. Consider sharing your feelings about the events with your child/teen, but at a level they can understand. You may express sadness and empathy for the victims and their families. You may share some worry, but it is important to also share ideas for coping with difficult situations like this tragedy. When you speak of the quick response by law enforcement and medical personnel to help the victims (and the heroic or generous efforts of ordinary citizens), you help your child/teen see that there can be good, even in the midst of a horrific event.

  • Be patient. In times of stress, children/teens may have trouble with their behavior, concentration, and attention. While they may not openly ask for your guidance or support, they will want it. Adolescents who are seeking increased independence may have difficulty expressing their needs. Both children and teens will need a little extra patience, care, and love.

  • Extra help. Should reactions continue or at any point interfere with your children’s/teens’ abilities to function or if you are worried, contact local mental health professionals who have expertise in trauma. Contact your family physician, pediatrician, or state mental health associations for referrals to such experts.

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Here are tips for talking to kids about school shootings