As a parent or guardian, we are familiar with the sinking feeling we get when a shooting occurs, at a school, and the need to figure out how we are going to talk to our children about these senseless acts of violence and tragedies. There is likely no exact or correct way to address tragedies with children as there are so many factors to take in including the child’s age and their temperament.
The American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Psychiatric Association recommends avoiding the topics of violence and tragedy with children until they reach about eight (8) years-old, but again, they say it depends on the child. Dr. Deborah Gilboa, a parenting expert, advises the first step is to process our own emotional response away from our children. It is suggested that what we “do” will affect children more than what we “say” to them.
Some important tips from experts are to reassure children that they are safe, validate their feelings, make time to talk, review safety procedures, limit television viewing of these events, and maintain a normal routine. It is also recommended that we keep our explanations developmentally appropriate. All conversation with children should come from a place of love and assuring them that they are ok. Tone and expression are also important as children will read into the delivery as well. Below are some helpful tips to consider depending on the child’s age:
Parenting experts and Doctors recommend keeping the discussion simple. Experts recommend that the discussions reinforce the parent’s/guardian’s beliefs. For example, telling children that a bad person hurt people or that someone felt angry and hurt people may be enough. Keeping your discussion to a child, under six (6) years of age, to one-sentence will ensure we can get to the point and not give the child more information than she is capable of understanding. Coming from a place of love and kindness but not overexcitement is also suggested.
Elementary School Children
With children in this age group, experts recommend shielding them. Children in this age group will ask many more interrogative questions and we as parents/guardians should determine how much we want to share with them. Dr. Gilboa explains that parents/guardians should prevent their children from seeing pictures or the news because these images will stick with them longer than words will. If your children do see pictures, she further recommended that parents “show their children positive photos to counteract the negative.” The information you choose to share with them should be balanced with reassurances that their school and homes are safe and that the adults in their lives are there to protect them. We can also give simple examples of school safety and protocol and so it is important to be aware of and confirmed the same with the child’s school.
The most important advice the experts give for speaking with tweens about violence and mass shootings is listen to their feelings. They recommend starting the conversation by asking if they heard about the latest shooting. Dr. Gilboa said “If you are going to talk (about) a fraught or laden topic … you start with a pretest. She suggests that we ask how the child feels about it.” If they have heard about the latest shooting, listen to their feelings. And if they haven’t, parents/guardians have an opportunity to share their beliefs with them while gaining better insight. This can also become an opportunity to have a conversation with the child about values, where it can be more about raising the child than focusing on the violence itself. The conversation here can also include an emphasize on maintaining safe schools by following school safety guidelines and reporting threats to the appropriate school officials and/or law enforcement.
Teenagers will expect more than pre-teens will. The experts recommend also asking them if they have heard about the latest shooting, but make sure you allow the teen to share her feelings with you. Dr. Gilboa explained that “teaching teenagers to work toward change will help them be resilient” but to still make sure that we listen to their feelings, what they want to do, what we can do, and display the same with empathy. Dr. Gilboa stated that “what we want our kids to do when (they) see something wrong is to try and fix it.”
Suggested points to emphasize when talking to children from doctors and experts:
- Schools are generally safe places. School staff works with parents/guardians and public safety providers (local police and fire departments, emergency responders, hospitals, etc.) to keep you safe and are working to make things more secure.
- We all play a role in the school safety. Be observant and let an adult know if you see or hear something that makes you feel uncomfortable, nervous or frightened.
- There is a difference between reporting, tattling or gossiping. We can provide important information that may prevent harm either directly or anonymously by telling a trusted adult what you know or hear.
- Although there is no absolute guarantee that something bad will never happen, it is important to understand the difference between the possibility of something happening and probability that it will affect you (our school community).
- Sometimes people do bad things that hurt others. Adults work very hard to get those people help and keep them from hurting others. It is important for all of us to know how to get help if we feel really upset or angry.
- Stay away from guns and other weapons. Tell an adult if you know someone has a gun. Access to guns is one of the leading risk factors for deadly violence.
- Violence is never a solution to personal problems.
If you or someone you know is struggling on any level as to emotions or other stresses stemming from school violence or otherwise, please seek immediate professional assistance.