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How to talk to your kids about school shootings

UPDATED: Sun., May 29, 2022

People console one another outside the Civic Center after a deadly school shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, on Tuesday.  (Dario Lopez-Mills/Associated Press)
People console one another outside the Civic Center after a deadly school shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, on Tuesday. (Dario Lopez-Mills/Associated Press)
By Amy Joyce Washington Post

We’ve written this story too many times. Instead of writing a new one, we are revamping tips we’ve compiled in the past about how to talk to your kids about scary things. This applies to this most recent horrific shooting. We wish we didn’t have to continually reup these tips, but here we are.

This advice came from Kyle Pruett, clinical professor of child psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine as interviewed by Jamie Davis Smith. We have slightly edited it to make it relevant to the most recent horror.

• Limit screen time to non-news coverage programming for your young children. Television, smartphones and tablets all have an ability to easily deliver graphic, startling images and photos of distressed adults and children that will bring the trauma very close to your child no matter how far away you may live from the incident. Some stations even go as far as broadcasting interviews with frightened children, which will make the incident even scarier for your child. Also, the younger the child, the more likely he is to see each broadcast as a new attack – just as children saw the broadcast of the 9/11 plane crashes as “hundreds of planes crashing again and again.”

• Help your child understand your emotions and their own. Children are very sensitive to their parents’ emotions even in good times. In worrisome events, they are especially sensitive. If your child asks you if you are upset or worried, be honest, but brief, and then reassure your child that you will be fine and so will they. It is important for children to understand feelings, and talking about them helps.

• Let your child’s questions guide the conversation. When your child hears about an upsetting incident, he will likely want to know more and is likely to ask for details such as: Who died? Did it hurt? Will that happen to me? Why would somebody do that? Where were the police? Were they bad people? Where were the parents? Are we at war? Before trying to answer your child’s question, make sure you heard it correctly by asking the child the question back, with a “What do you think?” tacked on the end.

By listening to their answer, you will get a better idea of what they are truly asking, and you can address their specific concern. Remember that less is more, so if a child says he thinks we are at war because he saw armed guards on television, you can reassure him that those people he saw are there to keep everyone safe. Always keep your answers simple and to the level of your child’s developmental understanding.

• Reassure children. Children may be concerned about an aspect of their own or their family’s personal safety. Your child’s reaction to the news they hear and the questions they ask will give you an idea about their specific concerns. You can offer reassurance, such as: “We are all safe.” Or, “The police came when the grown-ups called so no one else got hurt.”

• Create a strong community. In any time of unrest or crisis, gathering friends and family provides much needed support for grown-ups and children alike. Having more people around also means that you will have more resources to share with your children.

• Stick to routines. The unpredictable is scary for children, and a predictable routine is especially reassuring when children are frightened or unsure. Being rigorous about your routines and rituals will help children feel more secure.

Not sure how to talk to your older kids about this? Family physician Deborah Gilboa offered advice after the synagogue murders in Pittsburgh. This is also edited for relevance:

• Give them a sense of agency. Decide what value you want them to take away. What one thing do you want them to remember from this conversation? It could be: “Let’s think about what we can do.” Or, “Let’s look for helpers.” We get to drip our values into them along with facts. That’s why it’s good to have this conversation with them when they’re 11 years old and not wait until high school. We want to teach them what is right.

• How to talk so they will listen. Ask if they heard about this or what they think or what they know about what happened, then listen. That way, you know you’re entering the conversation where they are and not where you imagine they are. Then you get to give information along with your values. It’s much better to have lots of conversation about this than turn into Charlie Brown’s teacher. Then ask how they’re feeling. Validate those feelings and check back in.

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