In the aftermath of a school shooting or other tragic event involving kids, it’s difficult for parents to know what to say to their children. Especially for younger kids, we’re not sure how much information to share or how to share it.
Like most important conversations, your messaging will be tailored based on the ages of your kids. The conversation with your preschooler will look very different than the discussion you have with an older child in middle school or high school.
Craft Your Message
Many experts recommend that if you have a child younger than eight, not to have the conversation at all, unless your child brings up the subject. Even then, the conversation should be limited to acknowledging that something happened and that you and everyone at school will keep your child safe. Some younger children have a difficult time processing certain information, so a parent has to use language that is not only age appropriate but also specific to their child and their level of experience and exposure.
If you believe that your younger child may hear about the tragedy from another child at school or somewhere else outside of the home, it’s important to talk with them as well to prepare them for hearing the news. For younger kids, it’s important to limit the conversation to the basics and make sure to reassure them and leave them with a positive message.
According to Dr. Robin Gurwitch, a psychologist and professor at Duke University, it can be something as simple as, “There was a very sad thing that happened at a school in Florida today. It is very sad because people were hurt, and people were killed, and I just want you to know about it if you hear kids talking about it at your school, and if you have any questions, you can talk to me.”
Listen and Acknowledge Fears
Once you’ve initiated the conversation, it’s very important to listen and acknowledge fears. It’s important to reassure them without being dismissive. Young children have a tendency to ask the same questions and have similar conversations over and over again, because that’s one of the ways they process information. So, it’s important that you answer willingly and try to be patient.
As kids ask questions, it’s important to be honest, especially for older children. Think about how much information you want to share. With every question, try to bring it back to the positive and reinforce that they are safe at home. Obviously, with all the media coverage and your child’s exposure to social media, older children are well informed as to what is going on with regard to school shootings, when they occur. It becomes even more important, at those times, to reassure your child that extra security measures are being discussed and implemented at school.
Limit Exposure to News Coverage
Images will stay with kids far longer than words. It’s important that you limit their exposure to images both on the television and on the internet. For smaller children, they may not understand that a loop of video is the same event, and not multiple events.
If children do see some images from the shooting, try and counteract them with positive images and stories, like the bravery of the rescuers.
Kids find comfort and safety in routines, so it’s important to try and keep to the normal daily routine as much as possible during these times of tragedy.
Having these conversations can be difficult with your child. Just remember to remain positive, to listen, and to provide support reassurance.