How to talk to your child about school shootings

As rates of school violence rise, parents must once again confront how to comfort their children while dealing with their complex feelings about the horrifying and often highly publicized incidents. Here’s how to talk about it.

North Texas saw a spate of violence at schools this week, with a shooting Monday outside an Arlington high school that left one student dead and another wounded, a shooting Tuesday outside a Dallas high school that left an injured student and a small pocket knife incident at a Mesquite high school Wednesday that injured a student. All of this comes less than a year after the shooting in Uvalde, Texas, that left 19 children and two teachers dead.

Such events can have a significant impact on children’s mental health, even if they are far from a shooting, pediatric mental health experts say. Parents and caregivers may notice changes in their children’s behavior or new fears of going to school or large gatherings.

Although it’s difficult and can seem overwhelming, the most important thing a parent can do to help their children work through their feelings is to talk, said Tanya Moreno, a licensed professional counselor with HHM Health in Dallas, during an interview in May 2022.

start the conversation

It is important to let your child know that you want to hear what he is thinking and feeling. Some children and young adults may not want to talk about what’s on their mind at first, Moreno said, but it’s important for them to know you’re there to listen when they’re ready.

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Choosing when to speak is also important. Certain times may work better than others, such as when you’re traveling in the car or before dinner or bedtime. When kids are ready to talk, it’s important to listen to their thoughts without interrupting, advises the American Psychological Association, and to wait to share their own opinions until they express their understanding of the situation.

Sometimes sharing your own fears with children can make them feel more validated in their feelings.

“Children are not equipped like adults to communicate and express their emotions,” Moreno said. “Sometimes they don’t even know what they’re feeling, so it’s very important that teachers… and parents put themselves in their shoes.”

Pay attention to changes in behavior.

It is normal for children to react in many different ways to a traumatic event. Children may have nightmares, wet the bed, or express fear of leaving the house, for example. They may also become quieter or withdrawn, have angry feelings, or cry more easily than before.

This is normal for everyone, the APA said, and changes in mood or behavior should start to return to normal in four to six weeks if no other traumatic events have occurred.

Talk about what they are seeing on social media.

After a tragedy, children can be inundated with reminders of the event through news stories and social media posts. While it’s not always possible to control what your child sees or hears about Tuesday’s shooting, it can be helpful to talk together about what you see.

“After these events, people can say hurtful things, they can say disturbing things, they can say positive things. It is better to have these discussions openly,” Moreno said.

Find ways for them to help

Offer your children ways they can help others grieving this tragedy. Children can write letters or send pictures to affected families, or they can extend extra kindness to their own friends who may be struggling, said Nicholas Westers, a pediatric psychologist at Children’s Health.

Helping others “provides a sense of control in a world of uncertainty,” he said during an interview in May.

Take care of yourself

You can’t take care of your children without also taking care of yourself.

“Be a role model for your children on how to handle traumatic events,” the APA said. “Keep regular times for activities like family meals and exercise to help restore a sense of safety and normalcy.”

When to seek outside help

While it’s never a bad idea for a child to talk to a mental health professional after a tragedy, there are certain signs parents can look for to catch that sign that it may be time to contact an expert, Moreno said.

They include changes in mood or behavior that last more than a few weeks and acts of self-harm, such as injuring yourself on purpose or making unusually risky decisions.

“Parents know their children, teachers know their children,” Moreno said. “Parents and caregivers especially know when they see changes in behavior or mood.”

Parents should contact their pediatricians or school counselors for further advice on when and where to seek additional mental health resources for their children.

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