Updated: Apr 25
There are times when tragic events occur where parents and children struggle with processing and discussing what these events are. Events like the school shooting at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas, natural disasters where towns are destroyed and death occurs. Many questions pop up around how to, and if you should, discuss these things with children. It is especially difficult when shootings occur at schools and when victims are so young. Below are some tips on how to discuss tragedy with children at different ages and some resources to look into. If you feel that your child is struggling with tragedy, we encourage you to seek professional help from Mental Health experts and connect with your school counselor.
How Much Do I Share with My Child?
Jane Ripperger-Suhler, a child psychiatrist at Seton’s Texas Child Study Center, who worked with parents after the 2017 Las Vegas mass shooting, has some advice on how to discuss shootings with children.
Keep things simple and factual. For kids who are old enough to watch news on TV you can keep the conversation around facts that are known. For example, “A person walked into a school and shot students.” You can then ask your child. “How do you feel about this?” This allows you to gauge what they want to talk about or how they feel.
Don’t give information that isn’t asked for. By keeping things simple and factual you can gauge how your child is feeling. If they aren’t asking for more information then no need to share more. It is important to keep the discussion around what they want to discuss rather than dumping all the information that you know onto them.
Validate feelings they have. If your child starts to tell you they are scared or confused, validate them by telling them it’s ok to feel that way. Sometimes kids ask a lot of questions, sometimes kids don’t have much else to say. It is always ok to say, “I don’t know” if you come across a question that you are unsure about. Be mindful of how you react to what they are asking or saying, your reaction guides their reaction.
Approaches to Talking with Your Child Based on Age
Dave Anderson, clinical psychologist and vice president of school and community programs at the Child Mind Institute, a New York City-based nonprofit and Gerard Lawson, past president of the American Counseling Association and professor in the school of education at Virginia Tech, have some approaches for how to discuss shootings with kids at different ages.
Early Elementary: At this age it can be hard to fully understand what is going on. At this age kids are more likely to express themselves through play. For preschool or kindergarten children it’s best to limit exposure to the news and social media surrounding the event. You can be in tune with how children are expressing themselves in play and ask them about it to gauge how they may be processing something. With younger children it’s better to keep things indirect like, “Something happened far away where people got hurt so other people are sad about it.” Keeping things limited and indirect to help process anything they hear.
Late Elementary School to Middle School: For older children in school you can watch a little TV together or talk about a social media post they may have seen. It’s important to know as you do this questions may pop up. This is because children have more understanding of things like death or tragedy and may want to talk more. You can ask things like, “What do you think of this?” or “How do you feel about what happened?”. Never force your child to talk about these things though if they don’t want to. If you need to answer questions you can respond in the simplest, most factual way. Remember to not add information the child is not seeking. Most kids want to know if they are safe. You can tell them that you will keep them safe at home and teachers are there to keep them safe at school.
Late Middle School to High School: You can be more direct with your questions at this age. You can ask them what they already know or what they have heard and what it means to them. You want to see how they are processing the event before you help them with how they should respond. If you feel like they are struggling with how to respond you can offer support and even tell them people at school they can talk to as well like a school counselor or trusted adult.
After the Conversation
It’s important to keep routine in your child’s life, especially after events occur on campuses. Part of normal life is to go to school and encourage your child to maintain routine outside of school as well. If you do think your child is fixated on an event or showing signs of stress or withdrawal, it’s best to seek professional mental health support sooner than later. Communicate with adults your child interacts with at school and the school counselor or wellness team. We all respond to difficult events differently, if you feel as an adult you are struggling, talk with friends or family and even consider seeking support from mental health professionals.
Below are some additional resources you can look at on how to handle difficult conversations with your children. At SpringSpot we offer kids wellness activities that are easy to follow and include activities for cultivating self-expression and calming the mind. Access them simply by creating a free SpringSpot account.