How to talk to children about school shootings

BY Dr Jane Gilmour

30th May 2022 Life

How to talk to children about school shootings

Talking to young children and teenagers about tragedies for the first time can be very challenging. Dr Jane Gilmour offers her advice.

Should I bring it up at all?

The news about the school shooting in Texas is extremely distressing and parents may be wondering if they should bring it up at all with their children.

When it comes to hard topics, it’s important not to shy away from them (unless you are certain your child has not come across the news).

You want your children to know that they can talk about anything in your family, so usually adhering to the “Three Bs” is advised:

Be proactive. If your child is of school age, it is highly likely they have heard about the shooting, so be proactive and check in to ask what they know. You are conveying a strong message that your family can talk about tough stuff, which is an important foundation for family life.

Be sure to answer questions. If you avoid answering your child’s questions, they may fill the gap with worries or information from other kids, which could be inaccurate. Let them know you are glad they asked, whatever they asked.

Be honest. You stand for solid and safe certainty at times like this, so tell the truth, tell them gently and tell them that they can come back to it any time—particularly older kids who may take time to process it.

How did your child hear the news?

Teenage boy checks the internet on his phone in his bedroomTeenagers are more likely to see distressing news on social media, but you can still help with them useful skills like fact checking

You will probably be able to manage the media that younger kids consume.

Be careful not to expose them to distressing images or content that may be on the mainstream news if you can. Should younger kids see distressing images inadvertently, make sure you talk it though with them and translate it into terms they understand.

When it comes to teenagers, the challenges are different. Neuroscience tells us that the teenage brain is unique, so our parenting has to change gear to reflect that different brain state.

Using a consultative model (asking your teen what they think rather than telling them what to do) has a much higher chance of success.

Teenagers will almost certainly have seen events in Texas on social media, so support them to fact check their information. This skill will stand them in good stead now and for the future.

"Teenagers will almost certainly have seen events in Texas on social media"

Encourage them to show you their news sources and praise them for sharing. Resist any urges you may have to dismiss sources they have used because if they feel ashamed by the experience, they will not be encouraged to share with you again. Direct them to reliable social media accounts such as the BBC.

Given that the internet is full of unregulated content, ask how they would let you know if they feel upset about what they have seen and what you could do to help.

Even if they bat you away in the moment, your message will be heard, and they know that you are ready to support them if they need you.

How could hearing about shootings impact children and teenagers psychologically? 

The way that your child or teen reacts to any event in the world depends very much on how you react. They look at your reaction to figure out how dangerous any experience may be (psychologists call it "referencing").

This is still true for teenagers, even if they don’t show it.

"If you appear calm and in control, then your child will feel reassured"

It is not about being unfeeling—you can still feel empathy and sadness about what has happened without giving off signals that there is imminent danger.

Think about your tone of voice and your body language as well as the words that you use. If you appear calm and in control, then your child will feel reassured.

Does it impact how safe they feel at school? 

Include pragmatic information in your discussion to keep balance and perspective.

Young children need simple and concrete information. If they have lockdown drills at their school, for example, remind them that it's a sensible plan that doesn’t increase the chances of an intruder event. Just like learning to cross the road, information doesn’t make the roads more dangerous. It just makes you safer on them.

Let them know that what happened is a very unusual event. For younger children, use an analogy that is recognisable in their world.

Point out that the number of safe days at school around the world are like grains of sand on a beach, and what happened in Texas is one grain of sand.

This is a way of conveying the rarity of the event to a younger child, and not an attempt to diminish the trauma of families who have lost a loved one.

How can you reassure your child if they are scared?

Dad kneels on the floor and reassures worried childSimply naming your child's feelings and worries can help them to calm down if they are feeling anxious

If your child is tearful or highly anxious the first step is very simple. You don’t need to say very much at all (often it’s better to say very little) but just sit alongside them for a bit, hold their hand and perhaps name their feeling. We know that simply labelling an emotion can calm the brain effectively.

The aim here is to let them know you understand what they are feeling. This tip is important for connecting with your child before you move on to problem solving or responding in any other way. In fact, often this is all that is required.

If your child says that they are afraid to go to school in case they are harmed, and you keep your child at home in response, you are giving them the message that they are safer at home. This is highly reinforcing and may lead to greater problems in terms of anxiety or even school refusal.

Keep calm and carry on as normal, particularly for anxious children.

Look after yourself too

You will likely feel emotional about the news. It might feel a deeper violation because the children were harmed in school, a place we trust to safeguard their promise and future. It’s OK to react with anger, sadness or indeed any other feeling.

"As a parent, you may well need looking after too"

If you are feeling overwhelmed, try not to let it flood the conversation with your child. Seeing a parent overcome with emotion may be unavoidable, but it can be scary for children.

Try and talk your feelings through with a friend or partner. You need to look after your children’s feelings, of course, but in light of these events, as a parent, you may well need looking after too.

Dr Jane Gilmour, Consultant Clinical Psychologist at Great Ormond Street Hospital and co-author of How to Have Incredible Conversations with Your Child and The Incredible Teenage Brain

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