How to talk to your children about school shootings in wake of Texas massacre

An 18-year-old gunman opened fire at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, killing 19 students and two teachers. 

The lone gunman was shot and killed by police, according to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott. Most of the victims were in the second through fourth grade, Abbott said. 

Washington Superintendent of Public Instruction, Chris Reykdal, told FOX 13 that kids today are "very aware of how unsafe the world can be," since they have easy access to news and reports of these acts of violence. 

As students begin to learn about the violence that unfolded in Texas, it is natural for them to question their own safety in schools, experts say. 

Discussing mass violence 

Encourage questions

Mass shootings and instances of community violence may be hard for your child to understand. Encourage an environment where they can ask questions, and let their questions guide the information you provide, the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) recommends. 

Be truthful

Children may hear stories or things from word-of-mouth that are inaccurate or embellished, but it's important for them to understand what's going on around them in an age-appropriate manner, according to Dr. Doug Zatzick, with UW Dept. of Psychiatry.

"We’re sort of in this tension between wanting to protect our kids from just even hearing about this and sort of knowing this is happening. The idea that this story is unfolding, and it's on social media-- they may be exposed to this. The better part of things may be to be a bit proactive. And that starts with knowing your own reactions and knowing your kids and your family, you know, asking yourself ‘how do I feel about this?’ ‘where do I stand?’ and also knowing where your child is developmentally, emotionally, intellectually," Zatzick said. 

For children ages 7 and younger, Zatzick said you may not have to broach the topic unless you think they are going to be exposed to it. 

"And then you know, conversations there more simple and one-sentence explanations. Things that sort of resonate with your own feelings and maybe, you know, if you want to talk about heroics to sort of end on a positive reassuring note, that might be ok," he said. 

Zatzick says for children 8 years old through teens, it might be more difficult to beat around the bush, and it might be worth considering having a conversation with them about what they're seeing and what they think about it. 

Experts say by not talking about it, however, makes the topic taboo and will leave them with more questions than answers. 

Reassure

Although there is no absolute guarantee that something bad will never happen, it is important to understand the difference between the possibility of something happening and probability that it will affect you (our school community), according to NASP. 

Reykdal says during times like these, educators are urged talk to their students about the low probability of a school shooting and discuss the safety protocols each school has in place. Parents are encouraged to reach out to their district or school board with any questions about safety protocols or active shooter drills, he said. 

Validate the child’s feelings

Do not minimize a child’s concerns. Let them know that serious acts of violence are not as common or likely as they may seem.


 

Texas school shooting: Washington superintendent weighs in on safety measures taken in the state

Reykdal was very clear on one thing: we can take all the measures in the world and it won't ultimately keep schools fully protected from mass shooters.

 

Tips for helping your child or student through the coping process: 

Keep an open dialogue

Mental Health America (MHA) recommends making safety a regular conversation topic, rather than just an immediate response to a crisis. Children can continue and are encouraged to share their ongoing feelings with open dialogues on school safety and violence. 

Seek help when necessary

If you are worried about a child’s reaction or have ongoing concerns about their behavior or emotions, contact your pediatrician or a mental health professional at school or at your community mental health center, MHA recommends. 

Sense of normalcy

Keeping a regular schedule, be it health, nutrition, activity or sleep schedule, can help promote physical and mental wellbeing. 

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reminds parents and caretakers that there is no set time for grief to last in the aftermath of these situations. For some it could take weeks, for others, it might take months or longer. 

If you or someone you know is struggling after a disaster, contact SAMHSA's Disaster Distress Helpline at 1-800-985-5990 or by texting "TalkWithUs" to 66746 for 24/7 support.