Trigger Warning: Below we discuss some difficult and disturbing topics that can be triggering for some people. If you’re struggling, know that help is available. Don’t wait to reach out if you or someone you love is in a crisis and needs immediate support.
The fact that we even need to have a discussion about mass shootings is terrifying for many parents, and if you’ve recently been wondering how to talk to your child about mass shootings, you’re not alone. The sad reality is we’re at a point in the United States where it’s something we all need to talk about.
How did it come to this? How is it possible that we need to start thinking about having these talks? It’s something parents across the country are grappling with more days than not lately. The harsh, inconceivable reality is gut-wrenching, terrifying, and yet necessary, all rolled up into one.
So here we are, figuring out how to talk to your child about mass shootings. A place no parent wants to be. It’s an important conversation to have, though, and if you’re struggling, we can help you navigate it.
Use the following tips to guide you through the painful experience as you learn how to talk to your child about mass shootings at schools. They’re likely already aware of what’s going on around them, and opening the door to a conversation can help them process the awful, scary feelings and emotions they’re probably experiencing.
8 Helpful Tips to Prepare Parents for the Difficult Conversation
There really isn’t any way to fully prepare for this conversation. The horror of school shootings is so senseless, that nothing we say or do will help us truly understand. There are things you can talk about, though, that’ll help them compartmentalize the fears they may have.
1. Process your own feelings first
Before you sit down to talk with your kids, it’s important for you to begin processing your own feelings first. Although that can be admittedly challenging (rightfully so), it’s an important step if you want to maintain a sense of control over the conversation.
Your goal is to have a clear-minded, forward-thinking game plan that can guide the talk. Of course, it’s OK and understandable if you feel emotional during the conversation, but by first processing some of your own emotions, you’ll be better prepared to take a leadership role in the conversation.
2. Let your child’s fear, questions, or concerns lead the discussion
Ultimately, you’re having this conversation to eliminate fear, or at the very least, to help your child understand how they’re feeling. To do this, you can start out by trying to gauge where they’re at.
- If they’re scared, your focus can be on calming their fears and helping them feel safe.
- If they’re angry, the conversation can help them discover ways to manage their rage.
- If they’re nervous or anxious, you can give them tools so they can manage their anxiety before it starts to affect their ability to function daily.
Our tips below can also help you navigate some of these scenarios.
3. Offer reassurance
Reassure your child that while it is scary to think about, the adults in their life are there to support them and keep them as safe as possible. Be sure that you fully acknowledge what they’re feeling. It’s important that we don’t make children feel “wrong” for feeling how they do.
“Talk to your kids about their emotions and normalize what they are telling you. Give them a safe space to share their thoughts with you.”
Discuss how at school, the teachers, administrators, and counselors all share a common goal: to keep children safe. A lot of time and effort goes into being prepared, and it might help to reassure your child that their safety is a priority for all the adults in their life.
4. Normalize the importance of difficult discussions
This will not be the last time in your child’s life that you need to field a difficult topic with them. Normalizing the idea that families should communicate — whether it’s regarding something wonderful in life, or something scary — let kids know they have a safe space to open up. This can help children at any stage in life.
There are several ways that you can ensure your children has the space to have these conversations:
- Have family meetings
- Encourage them to seek support and help from their school with a teacher or a counselor
- Help them find a support group
It’s important they know that if they have something to talk about, even if it’s difficult, they have a wealth of resources they can access in their life.
5. Establish an open-door policy
After you make sure they understand that hard conversations are sometimes necessary, it’s just as important to establish an open-door policy. Whatever they’re feeling, whatever they need help with…if they’re scared, confused, or struggling in any way, let them know you’re always there for them.
Having an open-door policy, any time of the day or night can set a foundation so children know they can come to you when they need you. This can pay off in so many ways as adolescents navigate those tough teen years.
6. Have routines (and stick to them)
Especially for younger children, routines can be very important as they work through emotions like grief and fear.
Keeping structure in their life helps them understand that life does go on, and things will get back to normal. Make sure:
- Bedtimes stay normal
- Meals are healthy and at regular intervals
- Homework time is still a priority
- Playtime or downtime is encouraged
- Sports practices and games are attended
- Extracurricular activities still happen
7. Make dialogue a regular thing
Unfortunately, as it often is with the big things in life, this isn’t likely to be a one-time conversation. Regularly checking in with kids about how they’re feeling (and how you’re feeling) can be a healthy model for when they’re trying to manage other big things in life.
“Check in with your kids, even if they have not expressed any negative thoughts and feelings.”
Drugs, sex, peer pressure, academic stress, social issues — you want your child to feel comfortable talking to you about all of it, so start a pattern of open communication early.
8. Keep it age-appropriate
One of the most difficult parts of knowing how to talk to your child about mass shootings is understanding how to shift the conversation for different ages.
Below, we offer some ideas that can guide your conversation based on the age of your child.
Navigating the Conversation by Age
Depending on your child’s age and level of maturity, your conversation can sound very different. Here are tips and ways you can adjust your messaging for any aged child.
Talking with young children
Young children will need a loving, calm environment when you’re having tough conversations like this. Consider keeping it very informal and comfortable. Cuddling on a couch might be better for them than sitting at a dining table, for example.
It’s possible that very young children might not have heard about the latest school shootings. Experts advise you to broach the subject with them tenderly, and through open-ended questions like: have they heard about a tragedy at a school, and do they want to talk about it?
Patience is always important when you’re a parent, but it becomes even more critical when we’re talking about something as heavy as school shootings. Be prepared for your young child to have a range of emotions. They may have a lot of questions, and they can even ask the same thing multiple times.
Be as patient as possible, and let them be as repetitive as they need to be in order to start feeling safe again.
Offer as much comfort as necessary
Don’t rush the conversation. Give as many hugs as they need, wipe as many tears as fall, and make sure the conversation is at their comfort level.
“Provide them with basic information and assure them of their safety. They need your reassurance more than anything.”
Limit their exposure
Especially if your child is young, try to really limit their exposure to media and news covering any recent mass school shooting, like the Uvalde shooting. We use the news to inform us, and at the right age, that can be a good way to process what we’re feeling. For younger children especially, being inundated with the same horrifying visual and hearing the same talking points over and over can make it more challenging to move forward.
Have several short conversations instead of one long one
If you sense your young child is shutting down or tuning out, that’s OK. Let their body language, eye movement, and engagement in the conversation help you determine when enough is enough.
You may need to take a break and come back to the discussion later. Some kids can’t handle everything all at once. Their brain might start to go into self-preservation mode when they’ve had enough, and it’s important to recognize and acknowledge that.
Give them tools to use when they’re anxious
Strategies that can quell anxiety will follow people throughout life. Teach children to use any of the following self-care, relaxing techniques that can help them deal with anxiety:
- Journaling for mental health
- Building Legos
- Doing a puzzle
- Writing letters or postcards
- Doing yoga
- Going for a walk
Read books about fear
Children’s books can be a great resource when you’re helping a child come to terms with things they’re afraid of. Plus, reading together offers a great chance to cuddle and get some one-on-one downtime.
Talking with tweens
Tweens are already dealing with a lot in their rapidly-changing life. Their bodies are changing, their emotions might feel unstable as hormones begin to rage out of control, and they’re likely more emotional than they were even just a couple years ago. For this reason alone, you might want to take some additional steps when helping them try to come to terms with something as frightening as school shootings.
Encourage dialogue over media exposure
Snapchat, Instagram, and TikTok are probably your tween’s lifeline. They communicate with their friends and establish and navigate social circles differently than we did at their age. It’s important to keep your finger on the pulse of what they’re being exposed to, especially when it comes to serious subject matters like violence and mass shootings.
Encourage your tween to talk (yes, with their voice, not through a text or a snap) to eliminate the unintentional exposure they’re probably getting through various social media platforms and Internet sites.
You also might strongly consider using an app that’s designed for parents to monitor a child’s digital exchanges. Some of the better parental control software tools include:
Suggest they talk to their school counselor
Remind your tween that as they get older, they might need more than just mom and dad to talk to. Reassure them that this is normal and OK. Let them know they can always go to a school counselor, online therapist, or teacher if they’re afraid, confused, or worried about anything in their life.
Be honest with them
Your tween is smart. Lying to them, or telling them there’s nothing to worry about, can actually be detrimental to your relationship. You want to solidify their trust in you and build their confidence in knowing they can come to you with a problem or fear in the future.
Listen to their fears and concerns
It’s easy as parents to get so caught up in trying to show and teach our kids, we forget to just listen to them. When you’re discussing those hard topics, where emotions can run the gamut, it can pay off to just listen.
We know that, particularly in the not-quite-teenager years, kids can find it especially challenging to put their fears and emotions into words. If your tween seems like they’re struggling to express how they feel, give them the opportunity by offering them a platform to talk.
Tips for talking to a tween:
- Don’t pepper them with information or questions in the beginning
- Stay neutral in your responses so you don’t sound like you’re judging them or their feelings
- Be mindful of your body language and facial expressions
- Watch their body language
- Use open-ended questions (versus yes-no ones)
- Try not to offer solutions or guarantees
- Validate their feelings
“Take time to answer their questions. Help them reality check their more negative thoughts that stem from their anxiety.”
Talking with teenagers
Teens can be notoriously difficult to communicate with. Eye rolls, annoyance, and even anger can be their go-to way of communicating. Reassure your teen that you just want to check in with how they’re feeling and that you know how hard things might be right now.
Acknowledge that anger is normal
Feelings of anger are natural (and can even be healthy), but caution teenagers about letting that anger take over. Look for signs that their anger is misdirected. Who are they angry at? The world? Someone who engaged in a senseless act of violence? A school for missing the signs of someone who needed help?
All of these can be valid, but processing anger is a skill that must be taught. Let your teen know that their anger should be something that eventually resolves.
Help teens manage feelings of anger by showing them how to:
- Identify physiological signs of anger — feeling flushed, increased heart rate, clenched fists — and practice calming techniques
- Pause before reacting when they are upset — take a beat, count to 10
- Recite a calming mantra when emotions start to build up like this too shall pass..
- Express feelings (in a positive way) — write in your journal or find someone to talk to
Let them know they can turn anger into action
One of the scariest parts of life for teens might be that they feel helpless. Give them actionable ways to take control and feel empowered. Encourage your teen to be a leader, if that’s their personality. They can:
- Start a group or club at school to write letters to politicians about school safety
- Start a support group and ask a counselor to help them lead it
- Spearhead a campaign that focuses on the importance of mental health access for teens
If your teenager isn’t comfortable taking the lead on some of these things, they can still participate. They might want to join nationwide groups of other students who are taking action and demanding change.
- Students Demand Action is a group of high school and college activists committed to ending gun violence. They help students organize walkouts and provide support for struggling young adults.
- Secure Storage Resolutions gives teens a plan they can take to school boards demanding actions be taken surrounding responsible gun storage.
Reinforce the idea: if you see something, say something
This is a big topic on school campuses across the nation these days. Reinforce the idea that if your teen notices something or someone whose words or actions are concerning, they should say something. It’s essential they know to reach out to an adult and avoid the temptation to share information with peers or on social media.
“Remind them about safety procedures and how they can also play a role in them. Go over how they can access resources in school and the community.”
Give them coping tools
There are many psychological effects of mass shootings that impact mental health. Learning to manage stress and anxiety is a skill that will help them cope after traumatic events and can also take teens through the often-challenging times they’ll experience as they enter young adulthood. Instilling the importance of self-care will be beneficial for their mental health for decades. Self-care is not only an excellent way to deal with the trials and tribulations of life, but also, can help you manage any mental health challenges or conditions.
Let your teen know about the following ways that can help them deal with difficult times and emotions in life after a mass shooting:
- Eating healthy
- Working out
- Sleeping well
- Asking for help
Being a parent is more challenging now than it’s ever been before. That you even need to think about how to talk to your child about mass shootings is beyond troubling. It’s a terrible reality that none of us can explain. Our job as parents, though, is to try. Don’t wait to talk to your kids — you have the tools to do so with this guide.
“If you notice significant changes in your child’s behavior and reactions then please seek the help and support of a mental health professional.”
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