As the number of school shootings continues to rise in the U.S., students, teachers and parents are becoming increasingly concerned about safety at school.
Between active shooter drills now being commonplace and constant media coverage of tragic mass shootings in the news and on social media, it’s no wonder that U.S. children are becoming more anxious and panicked about school shootings.
According to a recent study from the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, the number of school shootings in the U.S. has doubled over the last two decades. From 2018-2019, more than 100,000 students attended a school at which a shooting took place.
Stanford researchers looked at the effects that school shootings may be having on the mental health of students, and their findings are troubling. Children who attended a school where a shooting took place were more likely to be chronically absent, need to repeat a grade or drop out of school. As a result, these students are also less likely to graduate high school or pursue further education, and are less likely to be employed in their mid-20s.
The research also indicated that following a school shooting, both students and residents near the school were more likely to use antidepressants, pointing to increased cases of depression and other mental health concerns. The study found that the trauma of a school shooting occurring in a young person’s community — or even repeated media exposure to school shootings — negatively affects young developing brains and their biological stress system.
Additionally, a JAMA Network Open study from 2021 found that kids who were concerned about their safety at school were also more likely to eventually be diagnosed with generalized anxiety and/or panic disorders — suggesting that their fears could be manifesting in real, diagnosable mental health issues.
Dr. Jennifer Engelland-Schultz, an assistant professor in school psychology at National Louis University and a former school psychologist, says it’s important to talk to your children about these tragic school shootings. Not only can healthy communication and practicing coping skills help to ease their anxieties about mass shootings, but these important skills can improve their overall mental health and help them learn to manage stress in a healthy way.
Not sure where to start the conversation? From tips on language and age-appropriate subject matter to modeling positive coping strategies for your kids, Dr. Engelland-Schultz has expert advice for parents when discussing this difficult topic with their kids.
Ask open-ended questions
Engelland-Schultz says that when discussing tough topics, many parents struggle with knowing what or how much information is age-appropriate for their child. She recommends asking open-ended questions – What have you heard about this? How do you feel about it? Do you have any questions about what you heard? – to begin the conversation so you have an initial understanding of your child’s mindset and concerns.
One important piece of advice she offers is to never avoid tough conversations.
“I’d rather have that conversation with (my kids), know what they know and let them hear what I feel is appropriate for my child to know,” she says. Remember, your child will get their information somewhere. It’s always better that it comes from a trusted, loving source like a parent rather than social media or peers at school who don’t have all the facts.
Be intentional with your language
Being intentional with your language and how you present the topic can prevent escalating your child’s worries.
The National Association of School Psychologists says although there is no absolute guarantee something bad will never happen to you or your loved ones, it is important your child understands the difference between the possibility of something happening at their school versus the probability that it will actually happen to them.
With mass shootings regularly making an appearance in the media, Engelland-Schultz says it can be easy to think they are a common occurrence and, while they are increasing in the U.S., they do not occur frequently enough to be considered a common threat.
Help your child reframe their perspective by explaining that while these horrific events do occur and we don’t always understand why, there are many more positive things that occur at school. Emphasizing highlights from class, sports and social clubs or seeing friends can also help your child change their mindset about school.
Talk about safety
If your child feels unsafe at school, Engelland-Schultz recommends discussing what safety precautions are in place to protect them.
From lockdown drills and locked doors to visitors needing to sign in before they can access the school, listing specific safety procedures can help kids regain their sense of security. Engelland-Schultz says you can even talk about the role of police in your community or the safety measures you take every day at home, like setting an alarm or locking your doors.
She adds that getting familiar with your child’s school’s safety plan, whether it be by reading the school website or handbook or getting in touch with faculty, can help reduce your own anxiety, too, while making you an expert at reassuring your child.
Validate their emotions and concerns
“When students are feeling upset or stressed, help them name that feeling,” says Engelland-Schultz. Younger children may be feeling a mix of emotions that they don’t quite have the words to describe yet, and even older children may be feeling some pretty complicated emotions for the first time. Be considerate of your child’s concerns rather than simply reassuring them that they have nothing to worry about.
She adds that it’s also important to help kids understand that the people who commit these shootings often don’t know how to deal with their own thoughts and their feelings. “Reiterate that violence is never an answer,” she says.
Be mindful of your own emotions
Parents are their little ones’ first teachers, so seeing their parents worry about school shootings will also make them worry and feel scared. This presents a great opportunity for parents and children to learn how to destress together.
Engelland-Schultz says that many kids can benefit from practicing mindfulness and relaxation strategies. From deep breathing and visualization techniques to progressive muscle relaxation, trying these practices with your kiddo can help promote calmness, mindfulness and a sense of connection for both parent and child.
Monitor your child’s behavior
“You know when your child’s acting different,” says Engelland-Schultz. Monitor any changes in your child’s behavior, especially their sleeping, eating and social patterns.
“If you’re noticing that something’s going on, my first recommendation is to reach out to the school — whether it’s a school social worker, psychologist, counselor or teacher, somebody who knows your child — and dig a little bit deeper into what might be going on.”
She adds that it’s never too late to start talking to your child, regardless of their age. Try adding a daily check-in to your routine — and make it fun! Ask about a highlight from their day or a funny moment from school. Lighthearted conversation can help you gauge your child’s day-to-day well-being without making the conversation feel unnecessarily intense.
Take advantage of resources
If you’re concerned about your child’s behavior — or if you’re just interested in exploring helpful resources — take advantage of the faculty at your child’s school. Building a connection with staff at school can provide parents additional insight into their child’s behavior. Then, explore these helpful online resources for parents and kids:
How to Talk to Your Kids About Traumatic Events
Safe2Help Illinois: Mental health help and reporting for kids and teens
The National Child Traumatic Stress Network: School shooting resources
Suicide and Crisis Lifeline: Help for parents or children in distress
Follow Metro Parent on Instagram.