As America continues to pay witness to tragedies such as Columbine, the Aurora Theater shooting or the Newtown massacre, the task of explaining such senseless, indiscriminate violence has fallen onto the shoulder of every parent. While only a small portion of the population will ever be impacted personally by random violence, the media coverage that follows these horrific crimes all but ensures that every child will be made aware of them. Many kids who hear of such senseless acts can be deeply moved by them, and some kids may even become emotionally distraught or exhibit fear symptoms or other signs of traumatic stress. The following guidelines are meant to help you address these senseless acts of violence in a way that reduces the anxiety children may feel about them.
How to talk to kids about school shootings
& senseless violence
A) It’s usually best not to ignore the situation or try to hide it. As counselor Wendy Davenson states, “if they don’t hear about it from a parent they’re going to hear about it on the school bus.” (Frank, 2012) Children will learn of it eventually from other kids at school, and when they do, your avoidance of the issue will only amplify their fears. When you avoid the issue, they may have questions and want to talk about it but refrain from doing so because they believe you’re not comfortable talking.
B) This doesn’t mean you need to have an uncomfortable heart to heart talk. In fact, you should try to bring it up in normal conversation: “I’m not sure if you heard about it or not, but something horrible happened today. I wanted to tell you about it because I’m sure you’ll find out from others later.”
C) First find out what (if anything) they already know: What have you heard about it? What are your friends saying?
D) Give them the basic facts: “A disturbed man walked into an elementary school and shot a bunch of children. Most of them died. I’ve been feeling sad about it all day.” This states the basics of the event and opens the door for children to ask you questions or discuss what occurred, if they choose to. Be sure to tell them what happened to the perpetrator (were they arrested? Killed?) so that kids understand the event is over and isn’t still happening.
E) Don’t overload kids with too much information, especially about things which are over their head. Kids don’t need a lecture on gun control or school safety. These are adult issues they have trouble comprehending and can’t control anyway.
F) Offer simple reassurances: “I couldn’t wait to hug you after work; I’m so glad you’re safe,” and so on. Talk about how it makes you appreciate what you have and reminds you of how much you love them. This gives kids a sense of comfort and reassurance that even though horrible things sometimes happen, they are safe and secure. End by telling them that if they have any questions or if they just want to talk, you want them to feel free to come to you.
G) Don’t feel that you have to explain everything. Some things there are no answers for. Talk honestly about mental illness. Explain that while nobody is born bad, sometimes people have experiences in their life that make it difficult for their brain to cope. They can become agitated, distraught, and very rarely, this causes them to do something bad. It’s difficult to understand because it isn’t rational; their brain is not thinking normally.
H) Don’t use terms such as “evil” or “monster.” These descriptions aren’t accurate, and they tend to frighten children rather than comfort them.
I) Refrain from venting in front of your kids. Children monitor your every word and overhear far more than you might realize. It won’t help them to hear you go on a tirade about all the “horrible monsters out there.”
J) Don’t pull your kids from school for safety concerns or otherwise act in abnormal ways. This isn’t a rational thing to do, and it feeds into a child’s concerns that they aren’t safe.
Reassurances to offer kids after a school shooting
1. You should be honest about the fact that such things can happen anywhere, just as it’s possible for a small asteroid to fall from the sky anywhere in the world and bop you on the head. But when is the last time you got hit by an asteroid? Tragedies such as this can strike anywhere, but that doesn’t mean they are likely to happen to you. Such cases are extremely rare, and it’s less than a 1 in a million chance you’ll ever experience something like this. The odds of winning the lottery jackpot are better.
2. Remind them that regardless of this event, schools are still the safest place for them to be. It’s a place filled with adults who would protect you with their life, as the Sandy Hook shooting demonstrated. You might also give older children the facts: Far more tragedies and accidents happen away from school, with less than 1% of all child murders occurring on school grounds. Illustrate this principle with a hundred pennies if you’d like; putting one inside a picture of a schoolhouse and then 99 outside of it and asking them which is safer. Make sure they understand that the reason stories like this garner so much attention is precisely because they are so unusual…a rare and isolated tragedy that occurs in an otherwise safe place.