How to talk to your children about school shootings in an age-appropriate way, according to psychologists
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Reeling from the news of the devastating Texas elementary-school shooting, parents are faced with the disturbing reality of the American classroom. In what's supposed to be a safe haven, active-shooter drills have become the norm. And after one of the deadliest school shootings in our nation's history, second only to the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, parents across the country are wondering how much information to share and how to answer their children's questions and concerns.
If you're worried, upset, or scared, share that with your kids, said Reena B. Patel, a
Instead of shielding our kids from the shooting, we should offer our comfort and support. They need our help to process what happened, said Dr. Doug Newton, the chief medical officer at SonderMind. Parents should strive to maintain a sense of normalcy and routine for their children during this time. "Having a trusted adult to discuss the flood of information with can be incredibly helpful," Newton said.
Discussing school shootings with your children can be so heartbreaking that it's hard to know what to say. Here's an age-by-age guide to starting the conversation with your child, according to experts.
At this age, the information you share with your kids should be brief and concrete.
To gauge what they know, ask them if they've ever experienced a drill at school and what they've heard about recent events from others, Patel said. This may give you an idea of whether they've made a connection between the shooting and their own experience.
Ask your child if they have questions. Maybe they're wondering whether they're safe in school or whether they can go back to class the next day. Reassure them by emphasizing that there is more good in the world than there is evil, but that sometimes people make bad choices that have sad consequences, Patel said.
Find out what your child knows and correct any misunderstandings, Newton said. Reassure them that it's OK to talk about their feelings. "By middle school, children may not feel as comfortable communicating their fears," he said, so caregivers have to make it clear that it's safe for them to do so.
Allow them to come up with solutions to help promote an environment of safety at their school, Patel said. Maybe they can contact community leaders to ask for help enforcing safer schools. And now is the time to engage in acts of kindness within the community. They could even send letters to those who were affected, expressing their compassion.
High-school students may have stronger opinions about shootings and the tragedy, Newton said. "Be prepared to have nuanced, sophisticated conversations about the impact of gun violence, not just to them but their community and society as a whole," he added.
Older kids have a deeper understanding of what's going on, Patel said, and they can use their frustration and anger as a catalyst. "When they say, 'You know, it's still happening,' you can say, 'What can we do to help speed up the process for change?'"
It's normal for children to experience feelings of anxiety, worry, and fear after a shooting, but if their grief is prolonged, or you notice a marked change in their behavior, reach out for help, Patel said.
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