When news broke of the kids and teachers who died in the school shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvale, Texas this week, Jennifer Lizza's teen son walked in to find her crying.
"He sat with me," says the New Jersey mom and parenting blogger. "I allowed him to speak first — the first thing he said was, 'I just don't understand why this keeps happening.'"
Like most parents struggling to know how to talk to their kids about school shootings, Lizza had no idea how to respond. "It's hard when we don't have the answers for our kids because the truth is, I don't understand either," says Lizza, whose sons are 11 and 14. "We're all scared and as a parent I'm so concerned that the answers will be harder and harder to find."
Reena Patel is a parenting and school psychologist and author of Winnie and Her Worries, a children's book dedicated to helping kids process things that worry them. Patel says in a world where school shootings happen frequently, it's normal for parents to feel unsure what to say to their kids.
Before talking to children about the events on the news, she says it's important to process your own feelings about what you're seeing and hearing. "Let your mind and body feel the emotions," she says. "You may feel numbness and fear ... allow yourself time to process and don't be afraid to show your child these feelings because it's OK to be sad or scared and a child should note there is nothing wrong with feeling this way."
How to help kids process their feelings about school shootings
Patel says the first thing parents should do is reassure their child their feelings of fear and concern are normal. "Validate their feelings," she says. "Explain all feelings are OK when a tragedy occurs. Let children talk about their feelings, help them put them into perspective and assist them in expressing these feelings appropriately."
It's also important to make sure kids feel your home is a safe space for them to talk through what worries them. Often, parents will not need a plan for what to discuss, as kids will lead the way with their own comments. "Allow their questions to be your discussion guide as to how much information to share," says Patel. "Watch for signs they may want to talk."
If your child isn't a big talker, consider encouraging them to write or journal about their feelings. Listening to music or doing an art project may also help. Patel says young children may especially benefit from concrete activities like drawing or looking at picture books as a way to identify and express their feelings.
"Focus on healing and helping," Patel suggests. "Start in your own community and school: Make a commitment or pledge to support and make change or write and draw pictures of love and kindness and send them to those affected — including frontline workers."
How to help elementary-aged kids talk about school shootings
Patel says kids in elementary school may need brief concrete examples of ways their own school is keeping them safe in order to feel better. "Remind children about exterior doors being locked, child monitoring efforts on the playground and emergency drills practiced during the school day," she says.
Trina Diakabanzila, who has a 6-year-old daughter, says when talking about the shooting in Uvalde, she told her child, "the world is a great and beautiful place — it's just the people in it sometimes make it seem so ugly." Still, the South Carolina mom says her daughter, who has lived in other parts of the world due to her mom's military service, already feels unsafe.
"We have visited Ghana and she saw how peaceful it was and mentioned how they don't use guns there to kill people," Diakabanzila says. "We also lived in South Korea briefly and she mentioned how she misses living there and how peaceful it was and how they were able to go outside and play without me having to worry about her."
"Something has to be done," she adds. "There are so many questions being asked that have yet to be answered."
Patel says while we shouldn't shield younger kids from the world they're living in, overexposure to these events can cause acute stress. "Focus on the fact that most people are good, but sometimes a small number of people can make bad choices," she says. "Talk about what you as a family can do to help make sure your community is safe."
How to talk to middle school students about school shootings
In middle school, Patel says kids are more likely to question whether or not they're safe, as well as what is being done at their school to protect them. "Talk about what's being done in their school and by community leaders to provide safe schools," she says.
With her younger son, Lizza says she tried to shield him from the news of the Robb Elementary School shooting. "I hugged him extra tight before bed," she says. "The next morning before school he asked me if something like that could happen at his school, and while the truth is, yes it could, I decided instead to tell him all of the adults are working extra hard to keep them safe."
Talking about school shootings with high-schoolers
Patel says high school students are likely to want to take action, asking what they can do to keep themselves and their school community safe. "High-schoolers want to feel in control and play a role in their safety," Patel shares. "Remind them to follow school safety guidelines and how important it is to report any threats or unusual behaviors they see. Encouraging children at this age to seek out help to support their mental health needs is important, too."
But mental health and high-schoolers is often an area where parents should jump in as well. "Anxiety is the fear of the unknown and what happened took place in an environment where kids should feel safe," she says. "It's where our children spend most their day."
If teens feel anxious, sad, irritable or have difficulty sleeping, Patel says to assure them it's a normal response. "Encourage teens to be patient," she says. "Remember it's normal to have a strong reaction to a distressing event and to take things one day at a time as you recover. As the days pass, symptoms should start to gradually improve."
Other ways to help kids process tragic news
Patel says there are additional things parents can do to help kids process difficult news. First, it's a good idea to review safety protocols for your child's school with them. In addition to reminding kids to pay attention during active shooter drills and discussing the protocol for how they'd be picked up from school in an emergency, Patel says to "help children identify at least one adult at school and in the community to go to if they feel threatened or at risk."
It's also important to limit the media coverage kids take in. "Developmentally inappropriate information can cause anxiety or confusion, particularly in young children," warns Patel. "Adults also need to be mindful of the content of conversations that they have with each other in front of children, even teenagers."
Patel says having a consistent routine at home can go a long way in helping kids feel more secure as well. Getting enough sleep, eating a healthy diet and keeping up with normal routines, homework and extracurricular activities can all help kids feel like the world around them is more safe.
Aliette Silva, a Florida mom of two elementary-schoolers, says she's gotten used to talking to her kids about things like active shooter drills and safety precautions. "We discuss how they should run and to take the drills at school seriously," she says. "I wish we lived a in world where this wouldn't be necessary for kindergarten but that is no longer our reality."
Patel says while school shootings have become a reality to most kids, it's important to keep an eye out for long-lasting changes to a child's mental state. "Changes in behavior, appetite and sleep patterns can also indicate a child's level of anxiety or discomfort," she explains. "In most children, these symptoms will ease with reassurance and time, but seek the help of a mental health professional if you are at all concerned."
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