How to Talk to your Children about School Shootings

1. Prepare and Take care of Yourself: Parents of youngsters who have been directly or indirectly exposed to a school shooting feel a great amount of distress for the safety of their children. Studies have found that men tend to be particularly worried about their spouses, feel a sense of responsibility for their loved ones and may express a heightened worry about crime, while women tend to perceive risks involving threats to their close relations- especially their children (1). Be sure to be aware and mindful of your own worries and fears, as not to inadvertently project them onto your youngster. Research suggests that how events are perceived and remembered have been found to predict mental health outcomes (5). In these types of circumstances, youngsters need their parents to be secure bases (grounding forces) for them, amidst a potential whirlwind of uncertainty and disillusionment. With this said, it is equally as important for parents to take care of themselves psychologically and emotionally, in order to be fully attuned to the needs of your youngster. One suggestion for parents is to regularly get together with other parents in the local community who have also been affected. Research supports this type of social solidarity, as parents require a sense of collective connectedness, emotional understanding and normalization of reactions to bolster psychological and emotional functioning (2).

2. Assess, Validate and Be Present: Assess your youngster’s knowledge of events, their beliefs, and feelings. This can be accomplished by asking open-ended questions. Open-ended questions allow youngsters to think, reflect and give opinions and feelings, which will help you with understanding how your youngster views things. Open-ended questions start with “tell me, why, what, how, describe”. There may be times where asking closed-ended questions, such as times where you are looking for specific facts; however, try keeping these to a minimum. Closed ended questions start with “do, would, are, will, if”. Asking open-ended questions and coming from a place of exploratory curiosity will provide your youngster with an opportunity to be heard and validated and will provide you the opportunity to understand your youngster’s unique inner workings, and most importantly, how they view themselves and the world. Be sure to summarize intermittently what your youngster has said to ensure they know you have heard and understood them; ask clarifying questions as necessary and provide validation and empathy throughout. Once you have the whole picture, you have then provided your youngster with a secure foundational base in which they require to feel safe and to return to you for support in the future. This is now your opportunity to provide them parental guidance. This will look like gently challenging and addressing any thoughts and beliefs that may be detrimental in the long-run, engaging in more of a back-and-forth dialogue with your youngster, being present, and providing any additional emotional support.

Youngsters who have been directly or indirectly affected by such significant events are likely to express fear of this happening to them, or someone they know. Fear-inducing events such as mass-shootings tend to strengthen insecure perceptions about the social world. As parents, this will feel like a large burden for you to lift, and you will feel responsible to remove this belief from the lens through which they view the world. Beliefs that events are random and uncontrollable have been associated with adverse outcomes (6); therefore, it is important to check-in with your youngster’s beliefs regarding these issues over time and provide gentle challenges to them that interfere with their beliefs, thereby potentially throwing a wrench in the cycle.

3. Maintain the Status-Quo: Youngsters require a sense of structure and predictability in scheduling and with routines of daily living. After such a horrific event, it is typical for there to be a transitional period where things are out-of-sorts. After a short period of time, it is best to reinstate normalcy in all areas of the youngster’s lives to provide a sense of security, order and predictability.

4. Address where Necessary: Emotional variations in fear of crime are likely affected by socially shared understanding of crime (3). First, be mindful of what is said in your own household in adult conversation that can be heard in ear-shot of your youngster. Second, if you overhear your youngster in social situations with his or peers, notice the beliefs their peer group has when it comes to their stance on crime (mass-shootings) and perceived safety. Not only will this provide you with insight into your own youngsters’ feelings, perceptions and beliefs about his or her safety, but how much reinforcement and influence they are receiving from their peer-group. In the event you know that your youngsters peer group has a long-term insecure view of safety secondary to a mass-shooting, it will be important to sit down with your youngster and assess their thought process. This can be done by asking open-ended questions and coming from a place of exploratory curiosity.

5. When to Seek Professional Help: Research indicates that exposure to such violence or learning that a close friend or loved one has faced such exposure, is associated with increased incidence of a range of negative mental health outcomes, ranging from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and major depression (7). Get to know your youngster’s baseline (normal) behaviors and psychological, emotional, social and academic functioning. In the event you notice your youngster is exhibiting noteworthy changes in these areas of functioning, it is likely beneficial to seek professional help.

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