Whether you have a child in kindergarten or one who is just about to graduate high school, the reality for all parents is that we’re living in challenging times. In February, 2018, 17 people were tragically killed in a mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. All told, there were 94 school gun violence incidents in 2018 and about 328 total mass shootings. As adults, many parents are struggling to process our stress, fear, and anxiety about sending our children out into the world, and those feelings are compounded by the fact that we’re also the ones who are responsible for helping our kids navigate their own anxiety, trauma, and grief.
It’s confusing and scary to be a parent sometimes. And, if you find yourself faced with questions about a school shooting, gun violence, or even an active shooter drill, and you don’t know what to say to your child, you certainly aren’t alone. But Catherine Pearlman, a licensed clinical social worker and founder of The Family Coach, says there are strategies that can help parents have frank and open conversations with our kids about these impossibly difficult topics.
For Preschoolers and Young Children: Wait for Them to Ask
How you talk to your child will vary greatly depending on how old they are. Preschoolers and kindergarteners, for example, likely will not even be aware when a shooting takes place, and it’s certainly not necessary to tell them about it. “If you can actually keep the preschooler from knowing about some of these things, then that's the best choice,” says Pearlman. “But sometimes things are discussed at school or they hear it on the radio or TV, and we have no choice.”
In those cases, says Pearlman, you should speak with honesty at the most basic level that is appropriate for their age. Be straightforward, but simple. “So, for a 4-year-old who is asking about a drill they did at school, for example, I would say we practice at school for all kinds of scenarios that almost never happen, but we do it just in case, and that’s a good idea,” she explains. If your young child is asking about a violent event they somehow heard about, you could explain that a person chose to do something that hurt others, and it’s okay to feel sad about that, but that it is over and they are safe.
For Older Kids and Teens: Ask Open-Ended Questions
With older kids, such as those in later grades in elementary school all the way up to high school, your conversations will likely involve more listening than talking. Pearlman says to start by asking open-ended questions (How are you feeling? Tell me about your day. What do you think about …?) and listening to what they know, what they’re uncertain about, and what they’re feeling. “Sometimes parents will say, ‘Did you hear about this shooting where 20 people died?’ And the kid may have only heard about the shooting and didn't know anything about the people who died, but now he's thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, so many people died. Who were they? Were they children?’ So listen and ask a lot of open-ended questions and try not to put words in the kid’s mouth,” says Pearlman.
Tweens and teens may be more reluctant to talk about their feelings surrounding events like mass shootings, but it’s still important to offer them an outlet. “Sometimes we need to just say, how is everything? You don't want to say, ‘Are you thinking about the shooting still?’ Sometimes parents push it too far because they think there's more feelings there and there really aren't, but we have to ask enough questions to [be sure],” says Pearlman.
When Active Shooter Drills Lead to Anxiety: Take Action
Regardless of how much or how often you talk with your kids, they might still harbor lingering anxiety about the threat of violence at school. This isn’t uncommon, especially as kids are increasingly expected to “practice” for mass shootings. As of 2016, nearly two-thirds of U.S. schools require students to perform some version of an “active shooter” drill. According to a 2018 report from the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, these drills “foster fear and anxiety” and “can intensify the fear of gun violence children already suffer and train them to persistently worry about their own safety.” The report also noted that 60 percent of high school students report concerns about a potential mass shooting in their school or community.
In order to help alleviate some of that anxiety, it’s important for parents to be realistic with kids. “Saying things like, ‘It's not gonna happen here,’ or ‘Our school has a lot of protections,’ that are very superficial — kids can see right through that. Really listening to what their fears are can help. Try to empathize. Say, ‘That does sound really scary, but there are things that we do have in place at our school or in our home to try to prevent this.’"
Of course, if you notice changes in your child’s behavioral patterns, sleep, and mood, or you feel like their anxiety is getting worse instead of better, it’s important to seek help from a professional.
Alleviate Fear by Advocating for Change
Another thing Pearlman recommends is allowing children to be active and involved as a way of alleviating some of their fears. “Action can be a lot of things on even a small level,” she says. “It could be writing a letter to your congressperson; it could be visiting the office of your local government; it could be going to the school board; it could be asking for a PTA meeting or organizing students; it could be an essay contest." Working to change an issue can help kids lower their anxiety.
The final thing Pearlman stresses is that conversations about gun violence are an example of one of many different kinds of conversations that should be ongoing with our children. Many parents are involved in activism surrounding gun laws, or other issues, and talking to our kids about it can not only help them process their fears but also help them to become engaged and aware. “If you want your kids to go out and be good citizens, you want them to be engaged. And that doesn't mean that they have to believe what you believe, but you should talk to them about what the issues are, why you care, and what you're planning to do about it,” she says. “If we want to raise engaged citizens, then we have to talk to them about what we're engaged in.”