What to Tell Your Child About School Shootings
Does your teen feel anxious about the risk of school shootings? Though potentially lifesaving, do their school’s active shooter or lockdown drills also cause them concern? If so, your child is not alone.
Just as school shootings reported on the news or social media can frighten children and teens, these preventive drills can also unsettle them. For young people already prone to anxiety, learning about kids being gunned down can be traumatizing and cause them to fear their school might be next. These worries—which can be compounded by how media outlets intensely cover these incidents—can cause nightmares, fears about going out, difficulty sleeping, and dwelling on terrible images they’ve watched.
Parents may also project their fears and worries of school massacres onto their children, according to the Child Mind Institute, a nonprofit that works to transform the lives of children and families struggling with mental health and learning disorders.
So in this age of too many unspeakable tragedies, what should we tell our kids? How do we ease their minds and prevent excessive worry? How do we make our children feel safe? Consider these tips.
Talk about school shootings, but remain calm
You can turn off the news in your home, but it’s hard to control your teen’s social media feed or what they hear from their peers at school. After a school shooting occurs, have a conversation with your teen in a composed and matter-of-fact fashion, suggests Jamie Howard, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in the Anxiety Disorders Center at the Child Mind Institute. “You want your children to learn of troubling things from a trusted adult like you. Tell your child that they may hear about a school shooting but that they are safe and there is no reason to think they’re in danger,” says Dr. Howard. “What is most important is that you appear calm and in control because it’s very troubling to kids when their parents have strong emotions. And yes, a lot of times we have strong emotions when we see yet another school shooting, but you should share those feelings with other adults, not with your kids.”
Nancy Kislin, LCSW, a family therapist and author of the book LOCKDOWN: Talking to Your Kids about School Violence, speaks at schools across the country about these types of shootings. “Of course, as the parent, you are anxious, you sympathize, you empathize, but we need to check our anxiety at the door so that when we communicate with our child, we are not flooding them with our own anxiety,” she says.
Kislin recommends taking the edge off by having this conversation while doing an activity, like taking a walk with your child or maybe during a car ride. “Middle and high schoolers are on an emotional rollercoaster. Be mindful of your tone, don’t lecture them, and please avoid saying something like, ‘If you don’t have this conversation with me, you might get killed!’” she states. “We can’t make it seem like their life depends on it because that’s where hopelessness comes in.”
If your child is stressed out or highly anxious about mass shootings, both Dr. Howard and Dr. Kislin recommend seeking the help of a mental health professional. Consider that suggestion for yourself if you’re feeling stressed about the same thing.
Discuss the drill, then provide comfort
While active shooter and lockdown drills can be helpful, your child may also find them disturbing. Consider talking to them when they come home from school on the day of the drill. Ask your teen how they felt during and after the exercise and reassure them that what they experienced was just training; they are not in danger and the school is acting to help keep them safe. Such assurances can be significant for young people who tend to be anxious. “A lot of kids don’t think anything of the drill and don’t feel they are going to be at high risk,” says Dr. Howard. “But the kids who have pre-existing anxiety may get more nervous, and parents should definitely keep a closer eye on them.”
Dr. Kislin recognizes the need for the drills but wishes some schools handled them a little differently. “I think it’s critical that schools have a safety plan, but let’s have a conversation about the students’ emotional and mental health afterward.” She would like to see more schools create a two-minute pause following the drill so that kids can have time to process what just occurred. “After the drill is over, the expectation from every school is that the children go right back to doing their work. The problem is, our brains are not wired like that,” Kislin says. “Although the kids know it was just a drill, there is still something a little unnerving about hiding under a desk. A two-minute pause will help give the brain and body a chance to calm down.”
In addition to talking together about the drill when your child comes home, try doing something relaxing with them. Go out for dinner, watch a movie together, play a game—anything that will help relieve your child’s mind from the actions from that day.
Be proactive, get involved
Many parents worry about their teen’s safety when they’re at school or out of the house but consider channeling that energy elsewhere. For example, if you have concerns about how active-shooter drills are implemented, be part of the planning process by volunteering to work with the school. Recommend that a mental-health professional participate in the drill and help create a wellness component afterward so that the experience is less traumatizing. Maybe you bring to their attention the concept of creating a two-minute pause post-drill that Dr. Kislin suggests.
Consider forming a parent group that offers workshops or programs throughout the year in which students, teachers, and parents can discuss the impact of mass school shootings and how to keep the school safe.
“I think a forum moderated by someone who can keep things calm and productive could be helpful,” says Dr. Howard. “But you don’t want it to devolve into an opportunity to vent where parents end up making one another anxious. It should be more of an opportunity for the community to get together and look out for one another.”
LaShieka Hunter is a health, parenting, and entertainment writer living on Long Island, NY. Her work has appeared in The New York Times; O, The Oprah Magazine; Essence; Dr. Oz The Good Life; and Ebony.