A few years ago after a school shooting, I spent much of the day contacting the parents of children I work with as a child psychologist. Specifically, I called the parents of the children who were already anxious. “When he gets home, don’t let him watch TV or go on the Internet. Just unplug this weekend,” I recall telling a parent. I reasoned that already anxious children did not need to see those images.
When we hear about mass shootings and gun violence, what’s the best approach for talking to kids? The answer may depend on the child’s age and maturity level. The American Psychiatric Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend avoiding the topic with children until they reach a certain age — around 8, but it depends on your child.
Tips for parents and what to say
Try to keep your child’s routine as normal as possible. Kids gain security and safety from the predictability of routine, including attending school. A major change in your kids schedule or routine will signify that they are not safe.
Be honest, but don’t feel you must share everything, including all the information you’ve heard in the media. You can acknowledge what happened without going into gory details. However, telling your child, “everything is fine” when clearly, you’re upset just sends a confusing message. You child may think: “Well, mom says there’s nothing to worry about, but now she’s acting different. Hmm… Should I believe what she says, or how she’s acting?”
Listen and allow your kids to express their fears and worries. Let your child know there is no “right” way to feel: Whatever they feel is OK. Try something like, “You know, when I heard the news I felt upset too. What other feelings did it bring up for you?” Within reason, it’s OK for you to express your feelings too. Yet, parents often jump to problem-solving too quickly. A lot of listening must come BEFORE problem-solving.
Emphasize safety. After your child has expressed their feelings (and you’ve heard them), then you can provide some reassurance. Let your child know you will never take them anywhere where there is danger. Let them know you will keep them safe.
Redirect your child to something they can control. You might relate the active coping skills you use when you’re upset, such as, “I like to talk to someone — just like you’re talking to me right now — or I like to go for a walk and get out of my head.” Ask your child for their own ideas. Encourage them toward something active they can control, like their school’s safety plan (see below). After all, a shooting makes all of us feel helpless, and your child may need a reminder of what they can control.
Discuss school safety plans. Talk to your kids, if appropriate for their age and development, about the safety plans in their schools and what they’ve been taught to do in the event of gun violence.
Recognize the good. Assure your child that there are good things happening in the world, and more good people than bad. This mindset can be a healing one.
When to seek professional help
Whether tragic events like mass shootings and gun violence happen far away or close to home, they can affect our children’s lives and their ability to cope and thrive. If you see the following changes, you may want to talk with a qualified professional:
- Changes in what your child likes to do (refusing to go outside, avoiding playing with friends).
- Changes in appetite.
- Sleep problems or increase in nightmares — especially ones with violent content.
- Sharp drop in grades or ability to concentrate.
- Increase in irritability, like “blowing up” about things that weren’t bothersome before.
- Increased protection of younger children in the family (keeping a watchful eye out for the younger brother to make sure he doesn’t go out into the street… which rarely used to happen.).
- Difficulties with separation or being alone.
- With kids younger than 5, repetitive themes in the child’s play.
At times, kids and teens may need counseling to help manage their anxiety and learn to cope. You can receive counseling and behavioral health services at McKay-Dee's Behavioral Health Institute or at other Intermountain locations here.