How Do I Talk to My Child About School Shootings?
Reports of school violence trigger fear and anxiety in students with and without ADHD. Follow this blueprint to provide comfort and reassurance.
When shootings occur inside schools, grocery stores, houses of worship, and other public spaces around the country, we often cannot shield our children from news of these tragedies. Increasingly, children of all ages report feeling scared and unsafe at school as a result of school shootings.
Anxious children look to adults to help them process these deeply disturbing events. The challenge for parents and teachers comes down to this: How can we talk to our students about school shootings without causing alarm, adding to their anxiety, or being dismissive of their fears?
Use these scripts to help kids feel reassured and empowered about school safety:
Set the right tone.
Put aside time when you and your child are rested and comfortable. Minimize interruptions. Sit where you can see your child.
- For elementary-age children: Sit on the floor or at a low table together. They might like to have something to do with their hands, such as play with clay. Then, open with an invitation to share. It might go like this: “One of my jobs as your parent is to be sure you are safe. Let’s talk about school. What helps you feel safe at school?” If your child does not say much, try this: “What things do they do at school to keep kids safe?”
- For middle and high school children: Go for a walk or sit at a park. Show them you’re silencing your phone and ask them to silence theirs. Begin with something like this: “I know you’ve heard about the awful things that have happened at other schools where people have gotten hurt. What are your thoughts and feelings about these incidents?” Then use your best active-listening skills, such as nodding, reflecting, and paraphrasing. Watch for signs of anxiety, such as picking at fingernails. Try not to interrupt but do invite elaboration (“Tell me more.”).
- For all ages: Regardless of what they share, validate their feelings. Use the words they use. Younger children may not have the language skills to express their feelings but can describe physical sensations, such as a stomachache. If your child is distressed, give him a hug or put your hand on his shoulder to show support.
Let your child know that, although it is possible, gun violence at her school is unlikely. Offer examples of ways in which adults keep students safe at school and remind her that she can take an active role too. Children feel less anxiety when they have a sense of control over the situation.
- For elementary-age children: Say something like, “Remember that time we were late, and the door was locked, and we had to be buzzed in? That’s one way the adults know who is coming and going. Listening to your teachers and telling an adult if you see a door propped open are things you can do to keep school safe.”
- For middle and high school students: Consider saying, “There are lots of procedures in place to help your school stay safe. Locking all the doors during the day and not allowing backpacks in the hallways keep your school secure. Do you feel like your school is doing enough?” Listen and validate. Then follow up with, “And there are things you can do to help keep school safe, like reporting threats to administrators, and not opening outside doors for strangers. If you have other ideas, share them with your teachers. I can help with that if you want.”
Wrap up the conversation.
Briefly summarize what you heard your child say, remind her of steps she can take, and invite her to come to you with future concerns. Over the next few days and weeks, watch for signs of anxiety, such as changes in eating or sleeping patterns, or becoming withdrawn or clingy. After about a week, check in again by saying, “Remember that talk we had about school safety? Any more thoughts on that?”
Keep in mind: If you believe your child needs help, reach out to a mental health care provider for support.
More Resources on School Shootings
The National Association of School Psychologists offers tips for parents and teachers on talking to kids about violence: www.nasponline.org
The National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement at Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles provides resources and tips for school personnel and for grieving students in the aftermath of a crisis: www.schoolcrisiscenter.org
Parenting and Tough Emotions: Next Steps
- Read: How Do You Reassure Your Anxious Child When You’re Scared, Too?
- Watch: Managing Anxiety in Youth and Adolescents
- Download: 5 Ways to Improve Emotional Control at Home
Cheryl Chase, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice near Cleveland, Ohio.
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