With a seemingly endless cycle of school shootings in the U.S., children are bound to experience fear, sadness and confusion. Parents and educators sometimes struggle with knowing just what to say, how much to share and how they can comfort children during these tragic times.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), exposure to school violence can lead to emotions and behaviors that can affect a young person’s quality of life, including depression, anxiety, intense fear, alcohol and drug use and suicide.
The adults in their lives — at home, at school or in the community — can play a critical role in helping children return to normal routines, regain a sense of security and cope with the overwhelming emotions they may be feeling.
“The children of today are growing up in a much different world, one that includes a rise in school shootings and that allows for 24-hour immediate access to discussions and details about each shooting,” says Dr. Kelsey Bradshaw, a clinical child psychologist with Sharp Mesa Vista Hospital. “Part of our role as adults is to be available to listen to their concerns, validate the emotions that come up and help them to work through those emotions in a healthy way.”
The National Association of School Psychologists, American Academy of Pediatrics and American Psychological Association encourage parents to make the time to talk to children about the tragedy and present information in a direct manner appropriate for their age. They offer these recommendations for parents and adults looking for ways to start a conversation about school violence.
10 tips for talking with kids about school violence
1. Filter graphic details of the violence, but allow children to discuss whatever they’d like, as they may need help processing images and information they’ve already heard or seen.
2. Limit exposure to media — on TV, online and in print — and view or read news reports with teens so that you can discuss what they are learning and how it makes them feel.
3. Stay up to date on recent reports so that you can be prepared for the information children might be exposed to and need to discuss.
4. Let children know that they are safe. Acknowledge that bad things do happen — sometimes at school — but their teachers, school administrators, the police, firefighters and others work daily to ensure their safety.
5. Help to create a safe haven at home, one in which they can find comfort and solitude as needed.
6. Review safety procedures for your home, at school and out in the community, and point out the “helpers” in each environment they could turn to in an emergency.
7. If they are reluctant to talk, offer alternative ways — art, writing, music, physical activity — that might help them work through their troubling emotions and fears.
8. Maintain your normal routine, but allow children to take breaks as needed if they seem distracted or overwhelmed.
9. Model a healthy response to a tragedy like a school shooting — continue to do things you normally do, monitor your health and wellness, and limit your own exposure to media.
10. Continue to listen and watch carefully for signs of distress. Changes in a child’s sleep, behavior, emotional regulation, appetite and overall health can be signs of anxiety or stress.
The most important tip is to be open and prepared to talk at any time; kids don’t always want to sit down for a formal conversation, but may hint they’d like to discuss something important during car rides, while preparing dinner or just before bedtime. Let them know you are listening and that all of their feelings are legitimate, even if they differ from your own.
Talk to your child’s doctor if you think your child may need professional help coping with the recent school shooting or another tragedy. Programs such as Sharp Mesa Vista Hospital’s adolescent mental health services specialize in treating children and teens experiencing depression, anxiety, substance use and other disorders.
For the news media: To talk with a Sharp Mesa Vista Hospital adolescent mental health specialist about talking to children about school shootings for an upcoming story, contact Erica Carlson, senior public relations specialist, at firstname.lastname@example.org.