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July 12, 2022

Speaking with Children and Adolescents About School Shootings

High profile acts of violence can be difficult to speak with children about, especially school shootings, which have become an unfortunate and alarming aspect of our lives. Children and adolescents likely feel perplexed or in danger when hearing about horrifying events, such as the most recent shooting in Uvalde, Texas. The Child Mind Institute highlights that parents and other adults are sometimes too afraid to bring up the subject of school shootings with children, likely because they do not want to scare them; however, children often hear about these events through the media and conversing about it can alleviate the anxiety they may be feeling. Avoiding potentially scary topics can actually make them scarier to children. The National Association for School Psychology (NASP) outlines various suggestions, including but not limited to the following information that parents, specialists, therapists, and other adults can reference:

    1.Reassure children they are safe: Emphasize that schools are very safe while validating their feelings.

    2.Make time to talk: Be patient- children and youth do not consistently express their feelings readily. Activities such as writing, music, drawing, or imaginative play may be activities that can help children express their feelings.

    3.Keep your explanations developmentally appropriate. Let their questions be your guide as to how much information to provide. Dr. Maurene Goodman from Kidz Psychological recommends asking, “what do you think?” and “what do you know?” to help in establishing a baseline of age-appropriate information to provide (this questioning can also be utilized for other sensitive topics that may be brought up). NASP provides this guide for providing information:
    - Early Elementary: Brief, simple information balanced with reassurances that school is safe and that adults are there to protect them. Give specific examples of school safety (e.g., exterior doors are locked, child monitoring efforts, etc.)
    - Upper Elementary and Early Middle School: Children are generally more vocal in asking direct questions. They may require assistance in separating reality from fantasy. Discuss efforts of school and community resources to provide safe schools.
    - Upper Middle School and High School: Students likely have strong and varying opinions about causes of violence. Emphasize the role students have in maintaining safe schools (e.g., reporting strangers, reporting threats, not providing building access to strangers, etc.).

    4.Observe children’s emotional state: Changes in behavior, appetite, and sleep patterns can indicate a child’s level of anxiety or discomfort. Children who have had a past traumatic experience or personal loss, suffer from depression or other mental illness, or with special needs may be at greater risk for severe reactions than others. Seek support of a mental health professional if you are at all concerned.

    5.Limit viewing of these events: Being aware of what is on television in common areas and monitoring what children are viewing is vital. Developmentally inappropriate information can cause anxiety and confusion, especially in young children. Adults should also be mindful of conversations had in front of children and adolescents.

Lastly, for us adults - the truth is that school shootings are very rare. The way shootings are covered on television and discussed on social media is powerful - we hear about the tragedy throughout our day and for extended periods of time. It is difficult to not feel fearful and anxious regarding this, but equally as important to take care of ourselves as our children. Ensure your basic needs are being met, such as getting enough sleep, eating meals, and taking care of your health. Look for self-care activities such as mindfulness strategies, exercise, hobbies, speaking with a loved one or friend, or anything else that you find helpful. If you feel that your anxiety is significantly elevated and impeding on your daily activities, please see a mental health professional.

More information and resources can be found at:

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