So in the wake of repeated school shootings — the latest being at Saugus High School in Santa Clarita, Calif., in which police said a 16-year-old boy fatally shot two students and wounded three others — how should parents and teachers talk to young people when horrible things happen?
In this post, Gayle Cicero, a clinical assistant professor in the school of education at Loyola University Maryland, gives advice on how to allow children to express their fears and ease their anxiety.
By Gayle Cicero
As much as we try to shield our children from the horrors of the world, events such as the shootings this week at a California school have become a tragic reality of life in the United States. When these traumatic events occur, what’s the best way to talk to our children and students about them?
The most important thing parents and teachers can do is start the conversation, because it’s likely that children are aware of what is happening. Today, even first-graders have smartphones and access to the media — so they’ve probably heard about an event such as a mass shooting but might hesitate to bring it up.
Start by asking what they’ve heard. Simply ask the question and then take time to listen. This can open the door for children to ask questions or talk candidly about it. Then observe their reaction — during the conversation and over the following days. Some children withdraw, while others might act out or become irritable. Witnessing trauma can result in a variety of reactions, similar to the different ways people grieve or respond to loss.
It’s also important to understand that children will have different concerns at different ages. Developmentally, very young children will be most concerned about their own safety. As they mature cognitively, they begin to ask why things happen and what it all means.
They start to worry about others — could my friends be hurt? Could my family be hurt? Understanding their concerns and listening to their questions will reassure them that you care. Remind them that in an uncertain world, your support is certain.
Encourage healthy expression
There’s no scripted conversation for these events. Let the children’s questions guide what you talk with them about.
When tough things happen in the world, it’s important to listen and accept the feelings your child or students express — whether it’s anger, sadness, stress or numbness. If they do not yet have the language to express feelings, you can have them draw pictures. If they love to write, encourage them to write a poem or write in a journal. Or, if they aren’t as open to sharing feelings, find an activity they enjoy — music, basketball, whatever it might be — and engage that way. Ask what song best expresses how they’re feeling. Shoot some hoops or go for a run. Talking while engaging in an activity can be a great way to help children open up inside and outside of the classroom.
In a chaotic world, consistency is key
One of the best things we can do to instill a feeling of safety in our children’s lives is to maintain routines. If your family always eats dinner at 6 p.m., continue to eat dinner at that time. If you generally go for a walk after dinner, continue that habit. And if your child wants to skip school for a stomachache, it might be because of anxiety about what happened. Encourage your child to go to school rather than stay home. You can also reinforce spaces in your home that are safe, such as your child’s bedroom or a favorite spot in the playroom.
In the classroom, for middle and high schoolers, a great way to frame the conversation is to talk about possibility vs. probability. Use an analogy of something ordinary, like rain. It’s a possibility it will rain, even though the weatherperson said it will be sunny — let’s look at the sky and look at weather maps to see the probability of rain today. Understanding the difference between possibility and probability can help alleviate their fears.
Big boys and girls DO cry
Finally, keep in mind that our children are watching us, both in and outside of the classroom — they learn from the behaviors we model. If kids never see adults cry or express emotions in a healthy way, they might think it’s not okay to do so. It’s important to have an authentic experience around them. If you’re sad, it’s okay to say you’re sad. Take steps to shield them when something is too much for them to handle, but remember that it can be healthy for them to see an honest response to what’s happening in the world.
It’s not unusual for kids (or adults) to experience anxiety for a time after a traumatic event, but if you’re concerned about your child’s or a student’s behavior and/or it continues for a period of weeks or months, you should take steps to seek professional help. Need more information? The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) has some great resources on a variety of topics, including mental health, school violence, natural disasters and crisis support.