By Jessica Dym Bartlett
As adults struggle with their own reactions to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida—the 29th mass shooting in the United States in the first two months of 2018 alone—young eyes and ears are watching and listening.
This is an important time to talk to children about what they are seeing and hearing, even when they did not directly witness the event. While it can be difficult to know what to say, evidence from research and clinical practice can help us with these difficult conversations. We begin with a few suggestions for adults who care for children indirectly affected by a school shooting:
Talking to children about school shootings
Honesty is important when speaking with children about school shootings, but that doesn’t mean they need to know the details. What children need to know, and how we talk with them about such tragedies, is best considered through a developmental lens. How we answer their questions, for example, should depend on what they can understand and process without heightening their distress.
For a child of any age, it is important to begin by finding out what they already know. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network recommends gently correcting inaccurate information, encouraging children to ask questions, and answering them directly. Adults can respond by acknowledging the child’s experience and feelings about the event, rather than focusing on the event itself. Parents can use a number of resources to find the right words to say, including apps such as Help Kids Cope. However, conversations should be tailored to the age of the child:
- Infants and toddlers are comforted when caregivers are warm, sensitive to their needs (e.g., feeding, sleeping, comforting), and maintain predictable routines. Conversation about the event can be harmful to very young children, who are highly sensitive to adults’ emotions. Even if they can’t understand the content, they can sense that something is wrong and experience distress.
- Preschoolers do best when adults use a calm voice, simple language, and respond to their questions honestly but with limited detail. Death should not be a taboo subject with young children just because it is upsetting to adults. Most important, preschoolers need reassurance that they are safe. Safety can also be communicated nonverbally—for example, by participating in normal, everyday activities and receiving extra attention from adults. Early childhood programs and parents can jointly support children who experience a school shooting.
- School-age children understand more than younger children and may want to talk about events at length with a trusted adult. Still, it is important not to offer disturbing details or to assume that children’s concerns are the same as those of adults. Like younger children, they need comfort and reassurance of their safety. They may want extra attention from adults and friends, and time to talk about subjects other than the school shooting. Schools can also serve as important sources of support by understanding and responding to a school shooting in trauma-informed ways.
- Adolescents benefit when adults take time to listen, without judgment, to their thoughts and feelings about the school shooting. Teenagers can think abstractly and may struggle with larger issues, such as the meaning of life and death and social justice. They tend to value honesty and are quick to point out hypocrisy. However, it is important not to force adolescents to discuss the event until they are ready, as they are likely to resent when adults appear push their own agenda.
Other helpful hints
Talking to children and adolescents is not the only way to help them negotiate tragic events such as a school shooting. Here are a few additional tips:
- Protect children from too much information. It is critical to carefully monitor adult conversations, limit media use in children’s presence, and seek support from other adults in private—exposure to disturbing images and conversations about the school shooting can stir up difficult feelings in children of all ages.
- Keep children busy. Boredom can intensify negative thoughts and behaviors, but children are less likely to experience distress when they play and interact.
- Ensure that adults receive the attention, support, and care they need. Parenting in the wake of a trauma can be difficult. Adults also need time and space to cope with their own reactions, as well as social support from family, friends, clergy, mental health professionals, and other adults.
- Seek professional help. Seek professional help if a child’s difficulties do not improve. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN) recommends seeking help if problems persist longer than six weeks.
- Find age-appropriate ways for children to help. Even very young children benefit from being able to make a positive difference in others’ lives while learning important lessons about empathy, compassion, and gratitude.
- Emphasize hope and positivity. Children need to feel safe, secure, and positive about their present and future. Seeing and hearing stories of people helping people in difficult times is both healing and reassuring.
Children with direct exposure to a school shooting
Children who directly experience school shootings are at the highest risk of developing posttraumatic stress and related symptoms (e.g., nightmares, trouble eating and sleeping, academic difficulties, excessive crying, clinginess, irritability, withdrawal, aggression, or avoiding the issue altogether). Moreover, upheaval among families, the school, and the community after a shooting can make it especially challenging for adults to maintain the predictable routines and calm demeanor that help children feel safe. In these instances, comprehensive approaches grounded in research on risk and resilience after trauma, such as Psychological First Aid, can be implemented. This may enhance both parents’ and children’s sense of safety, orient and soothe survivors, provide assistance to address a family’s immediate needs, and connect survivors with social support and services.