Schools are meant to be a place of learning and growth for young children. More recently, however, they have become a place where children must constantly remain vigilant, wondering whether or not they are safe. In 2022 so far, there have been 27 school shootings, affecting children and parents alike.
The May shooting in Uvalde, Texas, is particularly concerning given the fact that the institutions that were supposedly in place to protect our children failed them. Previously, conversations around school shootings could center the protections in place against these scenarios. Given the rise in school shootings as of late, it will take much more than this to reassure school-age children of their safety. Parents and families are now faced with a new challenge of talking to their children about school shootings.
Why it is important to talk about school shootings with your children
Grief is challenging at all ages, but particularly so for children. The effects that a traumatic event like a school shooting can have on children are wide-reaching, even if they weren’t direct targets themselves. Studies have shown that students who witness school shootings are likely to suffer from traumatic stress symptoms, like anxiety and depression, and face increased concern about their overall safety.
These national tragedies can take an immense toll on children, underscoring the need for parents to have the discussion about school shootings with them. “Having open and honest conversations with our kids is essential: for one, to build trust with our kids, but also to assess their own community and safety,” explains Jennifer Thompson, executive director of the New Jersey chapter of the National Association of Social Workers (socialworkers.org).
Thompson says that even though she is a trained social worker, her own children are susceptible to having an emotional reaction to school shootings. The day after Uvalde, she says that her son did not want to go to school because he had a stomach ache, “which is a clear symptom of stress and anxiety in kids,” says Thompson. “We got to school, and in the parking lot were armed police officers. While I’m so glad they are there, it’s heartbreaking to know my son is anxious about going to school, and there is quite literally nothing we can do as parents. It is important to acknowledge these fears, be honest about them and find a way to also reassure our kids that the police presence is good.”
Parents should realize that, with the extensive media coverage that these tragedies receive, their children are going to find out about them one way or another. Starting this conversation early is essential so that children can feel safe talking about horrific incidents. If not appropriately addressed, it could pose long-term detriments to their psyche.
“The reality is that whether we talk to the kids or not, they will hear about it and undoubtedly have questions,” Thompson asserts. “If we sit down and have an open and honest conversation, it builds trust with our kids. They trust we will be open and give them the information they need. It helps reaffirm that we are aware of what’s happening in their world, and reassures them that they can trust us to do all we can to keep them safe.”
Best practices for having a conversation with your children about school shootings
For parents wondering how to have this difficult conversation with their kids, Thompson says the first step is hearing from experts. She points to several resources created by social workers and other professionals in the mental health field — including a recent panel discussion held by the New Jersey chapter of the NASW — that will prepare parents for this discussion.
Thompson mentions it is also crucial that parents be honest with their children about their fears. Children need to know that the importance of processing their emotions and fears, but they can’t do so without parents first processing their own concerns. “Talk about your fears with your trusted circle or professional,” she says. “Children must process their feelings and fears with adults they trust, but adults need to do the same.”
Additionally, parents must realize that this isn’t a one-and-done conversation. School shootings haven’t gone away, so neither should discussions about them. Likewise, as the political conversation around school shootings becomes increasingly contentious, the ways parents approach this topic with their children must become more complex as well. “Use your school’s active shooter drills as an opportunity to bring it up naturally,” recommends Thompson. “Ask how they’re feeling. Give them space to ask questions and share concerns as they emerge.”
Most importantly, parents must reassure their children that they are doing everything within their power to protect them and ensure their safety. “Tell them you’re asking for gun control and for harmful weapons to be taken off the street.” Thompson says. “It’s important that our children see us reinforce our words with positive actions.” Taking action is the easiest way for children to see that their parents are concerned about their well-being.
Thompson suggests three strategies for parents becoming more proactive. The first, she says, is “to pass common-sense gun legislation, limit access to weapons, institute background checks and waiting periods, limit how much ammunition one can buy, and create a universal database for guns and ammunition.” The second is to encourage legislators to invest in mental health for all Americans. “We need to de-stigmatize it and make sure that everyone has access to quality mental health support, medications, and therapy.” Lastly, she says, “We must invest more in our schools, giving kids more programs where they learn healthy coping mechanisms for feelings, invest in bullying support, and re-vamp the HIB laws [harassment, intimidation, and bullying] and triggers in the nation. We are responsible for helping our kids grow up feeling safe and supported.”
No one wants to have a conversation about school shootings with their family, but especially not with young children. In an ideal world, it would not need to happen in the first place, but the reality is that school shootings are on the rise — not the decline. If we don’t have these difficult conversations with our children, they will be unprepared to cope with the trauma and anxiety these violent situations pose.