A Difficult Conversation
Many parents wonder, Should I talk to my children about school shootings in the news? And if the answer is yes, what do I say?
While school shootings are actually a rare occurrence, sometimes it doesn’t feel that way when we see and hear the news coverage detailing the tragic loss of life in yet another act of violence involving young people. These stories take center stage on television and social media and that can make it hard to protect our children from the associated fear, sadness and uncertainty that come hand in hand with this kind of news. We may not be able to insulate our children as we might wish, but there are things we can do to help them process this difficult information and put it in perspective.
First and foremost, this is a family decision and whether you choose to speak to your child and what you say will depend upon your child’s level of exposure to this information and your child’s developmental readiness.
What does that mean? Well, as with so many parenting decisions about when to introduce a tough topic, your child will likely help guide you, but age and maturity can also be helpful yardsticks.
Preschoolers through Grade one or two
If you’re very careful, and let’s face it, very lucky, you can probably protect your preschooler and primary age students from the topic entirely. Your first and best course of action may be to try and protect your very young children from news media and related conversations if it all possible. The first few days are the hardest, when news is at its peak and conversations most likely to be overheard. Eliminate exposure to TV, commercial radio and social media. Also counsel older siblings to avoid the conversation if you wish to shelter the youngest in your household.
However, despite your best efforts, it’s hard to enforce this kind of information embargo. As our children age, they go to school, they interact with older children and siblings and they might even have independent access to smart phones or internet and as a result, the bubble of protection is harder and harder to maintain. Therefore, you will want to be prepared to answer questions they may pose and to address any news media they happen to see.
If your preschooler or K-2 child asks about a school shooting, try to keep your reply simple and honest. Acknowledge that it did happen and it was sad, but also do your best to reassure your child that (assuming it’s true) that tragedy took place far far away and that “your school is a safe place.” Make sure you leave an opportunity to let your child ask any questions she or he may have. Ask, “do you have any questions? “. This way, your child will guide you as to whether you need to offer more discussion. Keep in mind, even if they don’t have any questions they may later and you may want to check back. Most important may be that you will have opened the door for later.
Distances can be confusing
Remember, young children often don’t yet understand distances or geography and that can make information about a shooting elsewhere, even one far away in Texas even scarier for them. Be ready with a way to explain the fact that this happened far away and that the person isn’t able to harm your child.
You may want to have an example at hand to help your child understand how far away the shooting really was. For example, you could explain that “this happened very far away, so far away it would take
XXX hours to walk there from our house” if your child is too young to understand how long an hour is, you can break that down by comparing the time and distance to an activity that they are familiar with such as the length of a favorite show on TV. I had an uncle who used to explain time my young cousin by describing how long it would take an ant to walk a particular distance in their house. If you can, come up with your own comparison to help your child gain perspective and understand how far away this event really was. You would be amazed at how many children harbor the fear that that same person might be able to hurt them or people they love and this is something we can honestly and firmly we are sure our children about.
For Children Third Grade and Up
As we have said, always rely upon your child’s own intellectual and emotional development in deciding what conversations are appropriate and whether you should initiate them or, as with younger children, you choose to only address the issue if you know they’ve been made aware of an event.
That said, by the time your student becomes a third grader, given our children’s exposure to television and social media, it’s likely your child will hear about a school shooting, perhaps even before you do. With so many children having smart phones it’s nearly impossible to keep news bulletins and social media postings away from them and then news spreads so fast.
Use your best judgment, but if you think it’s possible that your child has heard about a school shooting, they probably have and in that case, as difficult as it might be, you want to bring the topic up directly with your older elementary school student. You might say something like “something happened today at a high school in Texas, did you hear about it?” By the time your child is in sixth grade (or thereabout), you might start with “there was a shooting at a school in Texas today, did you hear about it? “.
It might also be helpful to have a few basic pieces of information at the ready so that you can answer questions or explain what happened. The unknown can be frightening to all of us and if you can be a source of accurate information and measured emotion, that will go a long way toward calming your child’s reaction.
It’s good to encourage your child to ask questions because that will guide your conversation. With middle schoolers, “active listening“ can be helpful. This means you want to ask open ended questions, listen to the answers and reflect back what you hear your child saying so that they can flesh out their own thinking about the event and articulate the questions that are ruminating in their minds. You might ask your child what he or she already knows, what they think about it and how they feel. Most important perhaps is to then really listen to what your child has to say and How they say it.
You may also want to take the opportunity to become familiar with our school safety plans and drills, if you are not already). Knowing what Barnstead has in place for these types of situations may help make you feel better and it can provide reassurance for your child. The older the child the more detail and factual information may be helpful. For younger children it may be enough to say, your teachers and Principal are there to help you and they have a plan in place to keep you safe.
You can also take the opportunity to talk to your children about the importance of speaking up if something doesn’t feel right or sound right. We’ve all heard that in most school shootings, another child was aware of the thought, the plan or simply that something “just wasn’t right” before the shooting took place. Encouraging our children to speak up is not only a great safety measure for the community, but it can provide children with a sense of empowerment and control in a world that sometimes feels frightening and beyond their control.
Keep in mind, It’s normal for children to formulate more questions over time, especially as the media extends coverage of these events over days and weeks after the incident. As a result, chances are high that your children will not just hear about these events, but that they may be exposed to repeated conversations. Accordingly, once you know your child is aware of a shooting and you’ve already discussed what happened, it’s important to come back to the conversation and touch base occasionally. Ask your child how they’re doing or if they have any new thoughts or questions and ask them again what they’ve heard. Often times rumors circulate and misinformation can create unnecessary worries or fears. Your conversation can go a long way to alleviate that.
Finally, remember whatever your child’s age it’s important to let your child know that they can talk to you about this and indeed about anything. We can’t possibly anticipate every challenge our children may face or every question they may have, but we can try to create an environment where our children feel secure enough to ask questions and speak up. you can do this by reminding your children that you’re always open to discussing their thoughts or worries and let them know that you will do your best to answer their questions, but if you can’t, and there will be those times, you will work with them to get the answer if you can.