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An age-appropriate guide for how to talk to your kids about school shootings

It feels like you can’t turn on the news, listen to the radio or go online without hearing the gut-wrenching news of another school shooting and its tragic aftermath.

As a parent, the idea of sending our kids to school can be downright terrifying. Trying to talk to our kids about the immediacy of these very real events can be scary, too—but it’s necessary to learn how to talk to kids about school shootings to discuss both the tragedies of school shootings and the necessity of school shooter drills so children are prepared.

If you’ve been avoiding that particular conversation, you’re not alone. Still, it’s crucial to keep kids in the loop, even when a topic seems too tragic to broach. As Jodi Quas, Professor of Psychological Science at U.C. Davis, tells Motherly, “lack of knowledge and misunderstanding can fuel fear.” No matter how scary, our kids need to know what’s going on in the world around them so they can process events and protect themselves.

Here’s some advice for how to talk to kids about school shootings.

Start the conversation, but also listen to them

It’s tempting to change the subject or avoid the conversation when the topic of school shootings comes up. But, even if a shooting wasn’t anywhere near you, the chances are high that your kids may have already heard something about it. Kids talk and connect—both online and in person—and trying to protect them by ignoring the problem doesn’t help anyone.

Quas says the first step in addressing the sensitive topic of school shootings is to simply have the conversation. 

“It is virtually impossible in today’s society to shelter children completely from information about shootings,” she admits. “If parents do not have any conversations with children, the children are left to fill in any gaps in their understanding on their own.” This can become dangerous as kids spread and absorb misinformation through texting, social media and unreliable sources, which can lead to assumptions and misconceptions.

Older kids are more likely to hear about school shootings from social media or other friends, while younger kids may hear it from friends or even from teachers who are discussing it with colleagues.

Whatever the source of your kids’ questions about school shootings, don’t change the subject. Address the event without instilling panic over your kids’ own safety and without unnecessarily violent details. 

Clear up any misinformation they may have heard. Beyond that, let them lead the conversation. Bringing up the topic can help them cope in a healthy way. It will make them feel more in control of how they understand and process the situation, which can be valuable when things feel out of control in the world itself.

Use age-appropriate tactics

Talking to a teenager isn’t going to be the same as explaining a school shooting to a preschooler. You need to choose your tactics and your conversation topics carefully.

Katherine M. Hayes, former teacher and Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor specializing in children and adolescents, says it’s necessary to address children’s questions by developmental age. 

“Young children may not have heard about the news. But, unfortunately, they may be involved in active shooter drills,” she says. “If this is the case, it’s important to discuss with the children before the drill what it is and why they are practicing it. Then, after the drill it should also be discussed, especially for asking children how they felt during the drill, as it can bring up a lot of anxiety.” 

Preschool to early elementary school

For young children, such as those under the age of 6, experts recommend sticking to a one-sentence story. Figure out what you want to tell them. If they ask questions, try to focus on moments of resilience or bravery that occurred, like teachers or students protecting each other. This can shine a light through the darkness of the situation and remind kids that there are still good people surrounding them. 

Elementary school age

For elementary school kids, try to avoid negative images coming from these events. Seeing graphic imagery will stick with your elementary-aged kids. Limit their media exposure to avoid frightening or over-exposing them to violence at too young an age. Of course they should be aware of what’s happening, but discussing specific violent aspects or allowing them to see images could be unnecessarily damaging.

Hayes recommends that instead of direct exposure to the details of school shootings, you focus on offering a sense of protection to children between ages 7 and 11. 

“Children will often share openly how they are feeling,” she says. “Be aware of how you as an adult discuss the shooting and where children are getting their information, [such as] car radio, news, kids at school…”

 At this age, it’s important for children to feel a sense of security. Pay attention to your child’s response, especially if they seem afraid of going to school or talk about the shootings often. If this is the case, Hayes suggests professional support may be helpful. 

Tween and teen

For tweens and teens, let them lead the conversations and talk about their feelings. Clear up any false information and use this as an opportunity to talk about biased reporting. 

“With adolescents and teens, you can have a broader discussion with them about why school shootings happen in our country,” Hayes recommends. “What laws are there that could be changed? How can they get involved? Allowing the adolescent to feel like they are part of the solution can be both healing and powerful.” 

Model a calm approach

It’s easy to let the anxiety of a school shooting overwhelm you, especially if you have children in any sort of school setting. Parents tend to worry about school shootings more than children do, even though children are in the actual school setting. Kids are also good at picking up on the fears of their parents, which can, in turn, cause them to feel more anxious about the situation themselves.

This isn’t to say that you aren’t justified in worrying for your kids. Letting that fear and anxiety rule you is detrimental to both your and your children’s mental health, however. 

If you need an outlet for your feelings, share them with another adult. Remember: What a child hears from you will stick with them. Even when it’s difficult, try to be a source of comfort and reassurance for your kids.

Monitor news consumption

Modern kids are steeped in technology almost from birth. It can be a valuable tool, but it means they’re connected to things like news and social media a lot younger than we were. They’re often far too young to look out for things like fake news and journalistic bias—which even adults find difficult to understand sometimes. When a school shooting happens, be careful to monitor your kids and their news and media consumption.

You don’t need to cut things off completely, though taking the time to disconnect frequently can help improve everyone’s mental health. You do need to make sure your kids aren’t consuming a lot of biased news that could be sparking fear and anxiety surrounding these events.

Tell your kids how much you care

It can be tempting to make promises to our kids when tragedies like this happen. We tell them that this will never happen to them or that it can never happen here. But, as much as we hate it, those are promises we can’t keep.

The best we can do for our kids is reassure them, love them and do whatever we can to protect them. Take the time to have a conversation about these tragic events and know in advance how to talk to your kids about active shooter drills. Above all else, make sure your kids know that you love them every single day. 

Unfortunately, we can’t prevent school shootings—at least not right now—but we can raise our kids surrounded by love and understanding in the hopes that, one day, we’ll no longer need to prepare them for the worst.

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