how to talk to kids about school shootings
Last week brought us the most recent in a growing string of tragic school-related shootings. Only halfway through February, the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida is now the 18th school shooting this calendar year – the equivalent of one shooting every two and a half days.
As a pediatrician, I am frequently advocating for legislation that protects children, including stronger background checks. I am always educating and encouraging families to implement safe firearm storage in the home. I see these as responsibilities that are a natural part of my work as a pediatrician, and I am comfortable having conversations with both legislators and parents about firearm safety and violence.
What is less comfortable, however, is knowing how best to respond when my 6-year old son asks me questions like “Did they catch the shooter?”, “What was the shooter’s name?”, and “Why did he shoot all those people?” It is normal for a caregiver to struggle with how to answer these questions. Am I going to share too much and scare my child? Am I not going to say enough and send the wrong message? Fortunately, the American Academy of Pediatrics has some helpful resources and tips for caregivers on how to best talk to children about tragedies like the Parkland shooting:
- A good starting point is to ask your child what they have already heard. I was surprised my 6-year-old even knew about the shooting and it was a reminder that most children will have heard something. It is probably better that your child hears about it from you, as opposed to another child or in the media.
- In general, it is best to share the basic information. Be straightforward and direct so that your child knows what’s going on and avoid graphic or unnecessary details. I explained to my son that a young man walked into his former school and shot several people. I told him that I think the shooter was maybe sad or angry. And I left it at that. Be aware that repetitive graphic images and sounds may appear in various forms of media and therefore try to limit, if not eliminate, those exposures.
- Convey a sense of support and safety to your child. School shootings are some of the worst tragedies we experience collectively as a society. They bother us, and they should. They will bother your child as well. It is important, especially for young children, to know that the adults in their life have a plan to keep them safe. Children find comfort in knowing their caregivers have things under control. The underlying message for a caregiver to convey is, “It’s okay if these things bother you. We are here to support each other. And I will always keep you safe.”
- Recognize signs that your child may not be coping well with what he/she has heard or seen. Some things to look for include:
- Sleep problems: Watch for trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, difficulty waking, nightmares, or other sleep disturbances.
- Physical complaints: Your child may complain of feeling tired, having a headache, or generally feeling unwell. You may notice your child eating too much or less than usual.
- Changes in behavior: Look for signs of regressive behavior, including social regression, acting more immature, or becoming less patient and more demanding. A child who once separated easily from her parents may become clingy. Teens may begin or change current patterns of tobacco, alcohol, or substance use.
- Emotional problems: Your child may experience undue sadness, depression, anxiety, or fears.
I encourage caregivers to go to www.healthychildren.org and search for “Talking to Children About Tragedies.” Much of what I’ve shared above is pulled directly from that website, and it has a tremendous amount of additional information available, including information on how to talk to children of various ages, children with developmental disabilities, and children with an autism spectrum disorder. There are also good strategies available at www.twopedsinapod.org.
Unfortunately, we live in a time where tragedies like these are becoming more frequent and they certainly take an emotional toll. By listening to our children and engaging in supportive conversations, however, we can help them to develop the resilience skills they need to manage their emotions. If you are concerned about your child and his/her response to this tragedy (or any other), please reach out to your child’s pediatrician or a mental health professional or counselor.