Talking to Children After a School Shooting

March 30, 2023 | General News

As the news of yet another school shooting fills the media cycle, we can’t say “the unthinkable” happened because it’s happening often enough for us not to be surprised anymore. As different narratives develop around the “why,” the “how,” and what actions need to be taken to prevent such events, it’s important to also keep in mind how mass shootings, especially school shootings, affect our children’s mental health; not only the survivors in the specific building, but ALL our children. 

Parents and caregivers are faced with having a conversation with their children about school safety and school shootings, even if they live in a different city or state. Except for the very young, chances are children and teens are going to hear about it from friends, social media, or other adults. So, how do we talk to our children about school shootings?

Initiate the conversation yourself– If you believe your child is going to hear about it anyway (or might), ask an open-ended question like “Did you hear what happened in….” Give your child a chance to respond and listen to their reaction. If they express fear, validate their feeling by saying something like “I understand you’re scared, and that’s ok.”  Saying “there’s nothing to be afraid of” may keep them from sharing how they really feel. Share actions their school and community take to keep them safe. Admit if you don’t have an answer to a question they have but say “we’ll find out together.” 

Be honest about the event– We need to be truthful with children in age-appropriate ways. Young children don’t need to hear all the details. They want reassurance from the adults in their lives that they, their loved ones, and their friends are safe. Teens may want a deeper conversation and look for ways (school clubs or groups) to effect change. 

Look for changes in behavior– trauma is an individual experience and children may react in different ways. Younger children may become clingier or want to come to bed with you. Teens may become withdrawn from activities. Let them know what you’ve noticed and listen to them non-judgmentally, without minimizing their feelings. 

Make sure your emotions are in check before starting the conversation– If you’re not in control of your emotions, your child may feel they need to take care of you or may be hesitant to share what they’re really thinking or feeling. 

Keep the conversation going and seek help if needed– If you become concerned about your child’s feelings or behavior, consult with your pediatrician, family doctor, school counselor, or other professional. 

The good news is that our children are resilient. Even though trauma is the most significant risk factor for developing a significant mental health challenge, most children can overcome these experiences in a healthy way. The most important protective factor for mental well-being for children is a supportive relationship with just ONE caring adult. Let’s be that adult in the life of a child. 

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To learn more about how Healthy Learners is addressing mental health in our state, please visit our mental health initiatives page here.