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Helping Families Talk About School Shootings

By Torrey A. Creed, PhD

Few things take hold of the news and social media like a school shooting. In the wake of these tragedies, children are often exposed to information that can leave them feeling worried and unsafe in places they’ve previously seen as safe. Parents may find themselves unprepared to talk with their children about events they themselves find frightening, or may feel unsure about how to approach the conversation. Many therapists who are asked by families how to navigate these important exchanges are unsure how to respond. The following guidelines are offered to help therapists coach families through these difficult, but often necessary, conversations.

Let kids take the lead.

One of the best places for parents to start the conversation is by asking kids what they already know, and what questions they have. Responding to questions can help parents avoid giving too much information (which can be overwhelming) or too little information (which can leave kids with more questions). With younger children, parents may consider saying, “Something sad happened at a school in Colorado today, where people were hurt, and some died. I wanted you to know in case you hear someone mention it, and you and I can talk about any questions you have.” Remember that younger children may ask the same questions over and over, as a way of processing the information. Younger children also may not understand that news feeds often loop video of events. They may misunderstand and think that the violence is occurring over and over again, so limiting screen time can be helpful. With older children, parents may ask more direct questions such as, “There was a school shooting today in Colorado. Have you heard anything about it?”

Reassure kids, but don’t make promises that can’t be kept.

Once the parent has asked an opening question, the best next step is to listen and allow the child to express their worries. Parents can validate the child’s concerns (e.g., agreeing that a school shooting is a scary event) while also reassuring them that these events are very uncommon (e.g., one of the reasons the news covers the shootings so closely is that they are uncommon). Unfortunately, parents cannot promise that violence will never happen again or impact their school, but they can communicate that adults are taking concrete steps to make their environment at school, at home, and in the neighborhood safe. For example, parents may help the child understand why the school requires visitors to sign in to the office or practice what to do in case of an emergency. In fact, encouraging a child to take an active role in school safety (e.g., reporting bullying or threats, strengthening their conflict resolution skills), or to participate in violence prevention programs at school, can give the child more of a sense of self-efficacy and control.

Children should be encouraged to practice their CBT skills in response to their worries, perhaps catching, checking and changing their worry-thoughts, or using deep breathing and grounding techniques to distract them from their distress. If these efforts are unsuccessful, the worries would be great agenda items in a therapy session.

Encourage parents in their own self-care and support.

To be effective in a conversation about school violence, it’s essential that parents manage their own anxiety before beginning a conversation with a child. Children will read parents’ cues and reactions, and if parents are struggling to manage their own anxiety, their child will be likely to leave the conversation even more distressed. Instead, encourage parents to access their own support systems, use emotion regulation skills (or learn them from the therapist), and process their reactions to the violence before broaching the conversation with their child.

Think of the conversation as an opportunity.

Difficult conversations can offer a chance for children to talk about their worries, and for parents to listen and provide support, laying groundwork for other important conversations in the future. In fact, many parents find that creating time to talk with children about any issues or concerns can help foster communication overall. Encourage parents to find a time that’s free of major distractions when the family can talk, but remind them that there is no need for the conversation to be formal and overly scheduled. For example, family dinner can offer a nice opportunity for sharing while the family eats. Other parents find that talking during the daily commute to school or practice, or during other shared activities, can open the door. If the child appears to be anxious near the end of the conversation, parents can try ending the conversation with distracting or positive topics (e.g., things the child enjoys, positive experiences in their day) or by revisiting emotion regulation skills the child has learned in therapy.

Know when to seek help.

Ensure that parents check back in to get a sense of how children are coping. If the child is already in treatment, therapists can check in during session. It’s not unusual for a child to think about the distressing topic for a day or two, but if the distress lasts longer than that or leads to problems with sleep, attention, or other functioning, encourage the family to discuss the worries in a therapy session.

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