What to Communicate to Your Children After a School Shooting
Writing a piece in response to a school shooting is a task that no parent/author ever wants to write. Yet, that’s what must be done following yet another horrific and deadly mass shooting – this one in Ulvade, Texas. Parents are once again left feeling shaken and asking questions. How do we process our emotions? What should we say to our children? How do we help them deal with their own anxieties and concerns?
We must unite for the sake of our children. Even though we face a public health crisis surrounding gun safety that is unlikely to be solved in the immediate future, there are things that parents can communicate immediately within families to help ensure loved ones feel cared for and safe.
Start with Listening – Being Present Counts
It may be hard to find the perfect words in moments like this. When you lack the words to say, know that listening in moments of crisis matters more than our words. Listening to your teen about their thoughts and feelings also helps you to understand better what they need from you in the moment. It also shows them we often manage our emotions best when we express them. Your presence conveys the safety and security people often need during moments of crisis and confusion. Breathe. Be there. Be together during these most difficult of times.
Lead With Calm
Some parents who are scared and emotional about what happened may project their worries onto their children and teens. It’s hard to make a child feel safe if they sense that we don’t feel so ourselves. It’s important to come to a place of calm. If you have strong feelings, and time allows, express and work through them with other adults first. That way when you speak to your child, you will be able to appear in control.
Young people should learn about troubling things from adults they trust. Remind your child they are safe, even though they may be hearing difficult things about the shooting. Emphasize that schools have safety guidelines, procedures, and practices in place. Try to stay composed and stick to the facts.
If your child comes to you before you’ve had the time to find your calm, hear them out. Tell them that the world can be complicated and confusing, but your family will stick together and navigate through all of this as a unit. Most importantly, tell them what you will do to regulate and sort through your own feelings. They don’t need to see you as unmoved or unaffected. They need to learn from you how you get through feelings that come from hearing such painful news.
Limit Media Exposure at Home
Following a school shooting, your tween or teen may feel more anxious about the risk of something like this happening to them. Reports on the news or social media can be upsetting. The intensity of some media coverage may even be traumatizing to young people who are more prone to anxiety. You may not be able to stop the conversations taking place at school. But you can turn off the TV and limit their exposure to social media when they are at home.
If your teen hasn’t brought up the matter with you, consider talking about these events while doing an activity like taking a walk or during a car ride. Ask them about what they’ve heard and seen. The Center for Violence Prevention at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia suggests letting your child’s questions guide you as to how much information you provide.
Consider seeking help from a mental health professional if you sense that your child is feeling highly anxious about the shootings. Let them know that reaching out for help is a sign of strength. (Take your own advice and reach out for support if you’re feeling overly stressed.)
Find Ways to Take Action
Is your teen angry or outraged? We don’t want our kids to feel like this is par for the course or something that “just happens.” Let your teen talk about their feelings and help them channel their energy into action. For example, they could contact their local representatives and elected officials to ask what they are doing to help protect the lives of children. If working to build a safe world for children does not move people to make the tough decisions, what possibly could? Or, they can get involved at their own school to offer suggestions about how to make school safer and communicate any safety concerns to school administrators.
There are things worried parents can do as well. Volunteer to work with your child’s school on their planning for emergencies. If your school implements active-shooter drills, help work with administrators to ensure there’s a wellness component available to the students following the drills. Form a parent group to craft programs during the year in which teachers, students, and parents can talk about keeping the school safe and allow members of the community to get together and look out for one another. You too can channel your energy by speaking to government officials about making the decisions that will end this senseless loss of life.
Tell Them You Love Them
In times of tragedy, we must support one another through our collective grief. You can’t hug your children and tell them you love them enough.
For additional resources, CHOP’s Center for Violence Prevention offers tips for talking to children who have been exposed to violent events. There are resources to help families cope following a mass casualty event at the National Child Traumatic Stress Network.