How to Talk to Your Kids About School Shootings: An Age-by-Age Guide

How should you talk to your child about school shootings? A local child psychiatrist offers advice on how to talk to kids from preschool through high school.

On Nov. 30, 2021, a mass shooting took place at Oxford High School. It was the first one to happen in Michigan in decades, and tragically, four students lost their lives. Many area schools shut down for mourning and to address safety concerns, leaving students and their parents feeling a mixture of anxiety and sadness. Many children feared returning to school. Would they be safe in their classrooms? Was a student with a gun going to wreak havoc on their school?

As parents, many of us had the same fear, and now — months later — that fear still lingers. If your children have questions and concerns about school shootings, there are some key ways to address them based on their age.

Here, Joanna Quigley, M.D., a child psychiatrist at University of Michigan Health C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, Michigan Medicine, offers advice for families.

Talking to a preschooler

When our kiddos are busy building Legos or playing dress-up, we might assume they aren’t listening to our conversations or the news segment we’re watching on TV. But the truth is, they are always listening.

“In that preschool age, they are really looking to the adults in their lives to inform how they understand the world. They are looking to us to interpret what is going on around us, so if they hear us talking about this situation with a friend, they may be playing and act like they are not listening and they may be taking that in. They may be confused by it or have questions,” Quigley says.

While preschoolers won’t be able to understand the complexities of a situation, Quigley suggests parents ask their little ones if they have any questions about what they heard mom and her friend talking about.

Common Sense Media suggests asking open-ended questions such as, “What did you hear?” or “What do you think is going on?” In response, use simple sentences at this age, such as, “Someone hurt people.”

You always want to reassure your preschooler that they are safe and people are working on the issue, Common Sense Media says.

Observe their behaviors, Quigley adds. If you notice they are asking for more reassurance from you or they are suddenly fearful about doing something they’ve frequently done, take note and keep asking questions.

Parents may also consider simply turning off the TV at home, especially for children under 7. “Turn off the TV and radio news at the top of the hour and half hour,” says Common Sense Media. For kids 8 to 12, the site suggests talking about events — even how TV and internet news media choose stories to cover — but filtering what they are exposed to visually.

Talking to an elementary student

Perhaps at this age, your child is dealing with more school drills, which could impact their anxiety about school shootings.

“At that age, they might be worried is there something I could have done differently, or have I done something wrong?” Quigley says.

Reassure them that there are things going on that have nothing to do with them but that the school wants to make sure everyone is prepared. Remain calm when discussing this with your elementary-age kid and reassure them that there are grownups taking care of things.

Do not brush them off if they are expressing any anxiety or other feelings, Quigley notes. Listen to them and address questions specifically and honestly — without too much content.

Ask them questions, too. What do they know about the situation? Let them know if something isn’t accurate in their response.

“Watch out for those kids who might hold onto it because of their own experiences or their own anxiety,” she says.

These kids can become moody, withdrawn, less excited about going to school, or even complain of stomach aches every week. If this is the case, Quigley encourages families to reach out to their child’s primary care provider for guidance. In some cases, the provider may refer the child to a psychologist or other mental health expert.

Talking to a middle schooler

Talking to middle schoolers can be tough — for one reason in particular, says Quigley.

“I think what can be challenging in that age range is that there’s such a range of developmental maturity with social and emotional issues,” she says. “One 13-year-old may be a lot more able to manage some of the complexities of the situation than another 13-year-old, so I think that’s one of the challenges for parents.”

Meet your child where they are developmentally and understand that your kid is aware of a lot more due to access to devices and social media. This means you’ll have to debunk some myths and rumors surrounding school shootings.

Even if they are exposed to different images and information, they may not truly be prepared to see and hear certain things. Talk to them about the fact that watching scenes from events over and over can make anxiety worse, Quigley suggests.

Encourage your child to express themselves and that whenever they are ready to communicate with you, you’re always there for them. It’s OK for parents to share their feelings with their middle schooler, too. Say something like, “I’m not sure how you’re feeling about this but I’m feeling sad,” and let them know they can tell you how they are feeling.

Talking to a high schooler

While you can have more frank conversations with your high schoolers, especially juniors and seniors, remember they are not adults yet, Quigley says, so parents should be open with them while not alarming them by talking too much about what happened.

Share your own feelings about the tragedy and ask to hear about theirs. Common Sense Media suggests starting the conversation with something like, “Do you have any questions? How do you feel about this issue? and Why do you feel that way?”

“(Be) willing to listen to them and to their thoughts and their opinions about it,” Quigley says.

No matter the age of your child, Quigley notes the importance of keeping structure in your household as kids are coping with any anxiety or concerns they have over school shootings and other tragedies.

“That structure and routines being consistent is very reassuring to kids” she says, so keep bedtimes similar and days similar to what they were before. Allow your children to continue to do activities they were doing before, as well.

And remember, keep conversations honest.

“As they get older and older, there’s more pieces to that puzzle that they’re trying to work out and fit together in their head,” Quigley says, “and I think it’s about being ready for each of those pieces and what those questions might mean.”

Content brought to you by the Ethel and James Flinn Foundation. For more information, visit flinnfoundation.org.

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