How Can We Talk to Our Children About School Shootings?
A new school shooting tragedy has shaken the United States. Last Monday, a former student killed three children and three adults at a Christian elementary school in Nashville.
The shooter was armed with two assault-style weapons and a handgun. Identified as Audrey Hale, 28, the attacker had elaborately planned the massacre, police said.
It seems dystopian to have to take steps to address the normalized violent reality of school shootings. However, we can only ask: How can we talk to our children about this?
That’s why we’ve turned to specialists to offer insight into this delicate situation.
How to approach the conversation
The most crucial thing in any sensitive situation is to open the conversation. When it comes to school shootings, it’s increasingly complicated.
For Minerva Guerrero, Ph.D., therapist, consultant, and mental health specialist, the first thing to consider is our children’s age and maturity.
As she told mitú, Guerrero considers understanding the child’s particular circumstances fundamental when talking about school shootings.
“It’s important to consider whether they will find out about this from older siblings, cousins, or friends,” she said. “If there’s a chance that they will, then you want to speak to them about it first, if possible.”
For the specialist, it is also critical to know the situation and the protocols in place at your children’s school.
“Keep in mind that what you tell them about school shootings will be the main narrative that they are going to hold on to,” she explained. “Children are sensitive to how their parents process emotions and hard times.”
Similarly, for Yamily El Fakih, Ph.D., a psychoanalyst and mental health specialist, it’s essential to always start by asking questions.
“The fundamental thing is to start with the question: What do you feel? What do you think?” she explained. For the psychiatrist, the conversation should start with the child’s feelings and reflections.
“Once we know what they are thinking, their doubts and feelings, it is easier to know where to start the conversation,” she added.
Avoid graphic details at all costs
We know that our children are exposed to much information in the world of social media.
“It’s important to focus on facts and not all of the negative and scary feelings that are coming up for you as a parent,” Guerrero added. “Avoid graphic details and focus mostly on safety, specifically the safety measures that you know their school has in place for them.”
School protocols are fundamental
Guerrero added that when talking about school protocols, the first thing is to know what the school is doing.
El Fakih agrees that being aware of what the school is doing to protect our children is a way to let them know that we are together, hand in hand, going through the situation.
“Ask them what has been said at school and what they think about it,” she said. “This is key.”
For Guerrero, explaining to our children why the protocols are essential is also important.
“If there are aspects of the protocols that they’re struggling with, explore why and validate them while still expressing the importance of them following the rules anyway as a need to keep everyone safe,” she said.
How can we identify feelings of anxiety, and how can we help?
One of the most important aspects for parents is knowing how to navigate the emotions that may be overwhelming our children, especially when it comes to school shootings.
“If your child is talking a lot about the news and media coverage and asking a lot of questions, this is a sign that they have curiosity about it,” Guerrero explains, “This is not a bad thing and, in fact, is normal. Your child should be free to express sadness and grief for those impacted and also to express their own fear about their own safety or the safety of their teachers and their friends/family members in other schools.”
“Find out what their school is doing in terms of conversation and support for the school community and discuss with the school counselor about their tips and recommendations to best support your child,” she added. “If you notice that your child is ruminating about the news, excessively following the media coverage, nervous about going to school, talking about shootings and death, talk to them about their fears, reassure them as much as you can, without lying to them.”
For the specialist, it is essential to talk to our children about their feelings and ask questions. She also recommends seeking advice from professionals in the community.
The hardest part: explaining why school shootings happen
Our children often put us between a rock and a hard place with their questions. When it comes to school shootings, it’s challenging to explain something still unbelievable to us.
For Guerrero, the best thing to do is “to stick to the facts.”
“Explain to them that there is no way to comprehend these terrible shootings that have happened where innocent people have lost their lives, that people do bad things without any explanation or reasoning,” she said.
“However, despite that, inform them about what their school is doing to keep them safe, how you’re involved with this process as well, and review safety protocols with them,” she concluded.