Talking to Kids About School Shootings: Tips to Ease Their Anxiety: Gunshots

Nineteen children and two adults were killed in the shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. Parents struggle with coping with the loss and how to explain it to their children.

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Dinner Allison/AFP via Getty Images

Nineteen children and two adults were killed in the shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. Parents struggle with coping with the loss and how to explain it to their children.

Dinner Allison/AFP via Getty Images

If you have school-aged children, chances are they’ve already told their classmates about the shooting in Uvalde, Texas. So what’s the best way to find out how they’re feeling and what they’re thinking? Ask them.

“Children’s questions can be very different from adult questions,” says David Schonfelda pediatrician who directs the National School Crisis and Bereavement Center at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. And the best way to determine how much information they need is to listen to it, he says.

“Before we can reassure them or help them with what’s bothering them, we need to understand what their real concerns are,” Schonfeld says. His group developed guidelines for talking to children after a tragic event.

Children often ask who is to blame, what could have been done to prevent the tragedy or could it happen to my school? Truthful answers are important for building trust. In a year the United States has already seen 27 school shootings and more than 200 mass shootings, the unfortunate answer is this: Although school is generally a safe place, there are risks .

“A lot of people tell me, you know, ‘It’s just the new normal,’ and my reaction to them is that there’s nothing normal about it,” Schonfeld said.

When 19 children are shot, it causes deep distress. “It should be painful – it’s an unacceptable situation,” he says. But for now, it’s a sad fact of life in the United States. “We can help children learn to deal with the distress they feel when they recognize the inherent dangers that are part of the world,” Schonfeld said.

A child’s age will determine how much information to share, but it’s not the only factor. Their emotional reaction may be related to the extent of trauma they have experienced in the past or their close connection to a tragedy. If the victims were their peers, the event will have a stronger emotional impact than children hearing about the shooting on the news. Either way, it will take time for parents to comfort children and help them cope with such tragic events.

“We have to be patient, and sometimes young children in particular need to have these conversations over and over again,” says Melissa Brymer, director of terrorism and disaster programs at UCLA-Duke University’s National Center for Childhood Traumatic Stress. “Sometimes they need it in small chunks. They might not be able to digest it all in one sitting,” Brymer told NPR. morning edition.

The American School Counselor Association has compiled a list of resources and advice to help you after a school shooting. At the top is the recommendation to keep routines in place. Even if children are anxious or fearful, there is a benefit to going to school and continuing with daily activities. As the organization explains in its guide, “children gain security through the predictability of routine.”

The organization says it’s also helpful to limit the amount of media you and your children consume, whether that’s social media, radio, TV or reading news online. In a crisis, the main reason to watch, listen or read media coverage is to understand what is happening. “But if you’re just watching the same cover over and over again and it’s not helping you learn something new that’s important to you and your family, then you should probably tune out,” Schonfeld says.

In the days and weeks after a tragedy, parents should talk to their children about how to cope when they feel worried or anxious. There are great books out there for having those conversations, Brymer says. She recommends Once I was very very scared, by Chandra Ghosh Ippen, for the preschool ensemble. In the story, many animals have scary experiences, but each reacts differently and has their own way of coping. Brymer says books like this can help parents and caregivers help children find the strategy that works best for them.

Another strategy for parents of older children is to help them turn feelings of anger or anxiety into action. Schonfeld says it’s natural to be angry and want to blame someone after a school shooting. But if children direct their anger at someone who acted hatefully — like the shooter — that doesn’t take away the grief or solve the problem. Anger can beget anger.

Another approach is to get involved in initiatives to combat gun violence. For example, students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, began pushing for gun control after the 2018 mass shooting there.

“It didn’t solve the problem, but it did make a difference,” Schonfeld says. Students have been effective advocates for drawing attention to gun violence.

“So I think yes, children can be part of the solution, but adults have to be part of the solution as well,” he says.

The key, says Schonfeld, is to keep having conversations with your kids. Ask them what they think and feel – that’s a good place to start.

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