It is an unfortunate truth in this country that we must have difficult and scary conversations that follow acts of violence, including school shootings. These events stir up confusion, fear, and unease for ourselves as caregivers or parents who are witnessing our worst nightmare, and also alarm the young people in our lives. It is during these difficult moments that children and youth look to trusted adults to understand how to react, cope and how to trust the world around them again. As you embark on these challenging conversations, consider the guidance below:
Name emotions together. Anxiety. Hypervigilance. Name the things that are coming up and be open about what comes up for you as a parent/caregiver. Sharing like this demonstrates that a) emotions are acceptable and b) gives them an opportunity to model their coping styles after you. Reserve processing more intense emotions with other supportive adults. While it is good to be open about emotions, you do not want children to think they must care for you too, or that they are somehow at fault. Phrases like, “I’m upset about what I saw, it’s not you,” can also help ease heightened and worried young minds.
Consider what is developmentally appropriate. You are the expert in your child. For any child or youth, approaching the conversation with curiosity and playfulness will be most helpful, but there are some things to keep in mind depending on age.
Remember that younger children (up to Elementary School age) tend to think in more linear, concrete terms, so keeping things simple, clear and concise will be important in addressing their anxious behaviors. Accept and hold the full range of their emotions. Phrases like, “A scary thing happened here, and grown-ups are working hard to try to fix it and keep everyone safe.”
Older children (Middle to High school) are keenly aware of when they are being condescended to and already have access to so much information on their own. Begin by being curious about what they already know. Anchor your conversation in facts. Invite a check-in later, if needed. “This scary thing happened and it’s making me think about safety. We can talk whenever you’re ready.”
Reassure safety. School is supposed to be a safe place. Help the young people you are connecting with understand that school is still a safe place to learn and connect with friends and trusted adults. You can approach this practically by helping to identify the things that keep them safe day-to-day, like talking to trusted adults when they are feeling afraid or unsure. Reiterate their safety by reminding them that you are always there for them and that authorities are investigating. “It’s okay to feel scared, but know that your teacher(s) works with me and other helpers to keep you safe.”
Keep the news and any violent or potentially triggering media away. If you as an adult are eager for the information, practice discretion, or try distracting your child to shift their focus. For older youth, filter the news for optimal times of day (avoiding close to bedtime) and/or watch together. Consider youth-centered news resources as well, such as Xzya: News for Kids.
Maintain routines. Keep it as “normal” a day as possible. Regular schedules are reassuring and can reduce anxiety. Ensure plenty of sleep, regular meals, and movement. Encourage academics and extracurriculars, but if your child is overwhelmed, take those cues and suggest a more emotionally accessible activity to do.
Navigating these conversations is not an exact science. You and the child you are supporting may have different needs depending on aspects like age, race and ethnicity, where you live, and the resources available to you for support. Let these talking points and recommendations guide you, but recognize when to ask for help.