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Talking to Children & Teens About School Shootings
School shootings evoke many emotions for people – shock, fear, sadness, anxiety, and anger to name a few. Whether we live close to the most recent shooting, or far away, children/teens will hear details and may have questions. Children/teens may be grappling with their own thoughts and emotions about the shooting and may want to talk with a trusted adult.
Here are few tips from FamilyMeans Counseling & Therapy Department on how to support and start this type of conversation.
Make it okay to talk about it. If a child/teen is asking you questions, try to answer their questions, in age appropriate ways, and stick to the question they raised. If you don’t know the answer, it is okay to say you don’t know, but you’ll try to find out. Often, we are fearful that if we bring up a topic, we will bring on more fear for children/teens. Quite the opposite. Children/teens will hear about traumatic events, whether it be from social media (news, radio, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, etc), friends at school, overhearing others’ conversations, or yourself. Silence, or not wanting to talk about, may send a message of this is too horrific to talk about, or I’m not the one you should bring this to.
Learn what the child/teen already knows. During your conversation, ask the child/teen what they have seen or heard so far about the shooting. Listen carefully; try to figure out what they believe about the situation. Listen for misinformation, underlying fears or possible further questions. As more information is shared about the shooting, the information children/teens know will change as might their beliefs, fears, and questions.
Gently provide accurate information, if the child/teen has inaccurate information. As you listen to your child/teen talk about what they know so far, if they do have misinformation, gently share what you know to be true at this time. Again, as details come out, this information may change.
Encourage your child/teen to ask more questions. In doing so, again, answer their questions directly and in age appropriate ways. Children/teens may start to ask more difficult questions – such as ‘will this happen at my school?’ In this situation, they are most likely asking if it is plausible to happen at their school and if they are safe. This is a great opportunity to review safety plans you as a family have in place, but also talk about safety plans the school has in place and how they practice them together.
Limit media exposure. This goes for children/teens, but also yourself as the adult. Limit the amount of information you take in about the events. Anyone may become more agitated or stressed when hearing or seeing nonstop stories on the news. Often as adults, we may have the radio or news on, with our children/teens focused on something else, yet they are often very aware of what is being said or played. What may be ‘just news’ to adults, can be very unsettling for children/teens to hear.
Talk about and validate common reactions children/teens may have in the aftermath of shootings. Common reactions can be, but are not limited to: feelings of anxiety, fear, worry about one’s safety or safety of others, fear of another shooting occurring, changes in behavior such as increased activity, or irritability/anger, decreased concentration/attention, sadness or grief, increases or decreases in sleep and appetite, use of harmful behaviors (alcohol, drugs, harming self or others), physical complaints, changes in school performance, staying focused on the shooting, and strong reactions to reminders of the shooting; may include sounds, smells, noises).
Know that children/teens and yourself may all react differently. After a stressful, or traumatic event, people will react and respond very differently. Responses are different due to many factors, including age, prior experiences (past traumas), how involved they were in the actual shooting, did they know people who were involved, how are the trusted adults reacting to the shooting etc. Expect children/teens may respond in a variety of ways, and continue to offer support and comfort, even as you may be having your own reactions.