Sooner or later, your child will have questions about school shootings, active shooter drills, gun violence, or mass shootings in general. You’re not alone if you’re struggling to find the right words.
How to Talk to Kids About School Shootings
For advice on this sensitive topic, we turned to an expert on kids and trauma. Here’s what Dr. Steven Berkowitz, MD, recommends for talking to kids about school shootings.
How to talk to kids about school shootings
1. Make sure you’re calm first
If you feel fearful, angry, or anxious about this topic, make sure you work through those emotions and reach a calmer state before talking to your child.
“I’ve had multiple reach-outs from parents, and their anxiety is often worse than their kids’,” explains Dr. Berkowitz. “If you’re anxious, that’s what you’re going to get from your kids.”
In other words, you can’t expect to soothe your child’s worries if you’re visibly upset.
2. Be a listener
“What you really want to be is a listener,” Dr. Berkowitz continues. “If you talk too much or bring your own perspectives in, then it tends to shut down kids’ ability to converse with you in any real way.”
Stay in listening mode by being curious about your child’s thoughts, feelings, and experiences. Ask questions.
Once your child opens up, Dr. Berkowitz warns against interrupting with phrases like, “That’s not true.” Hear them out, and then say, “Here’s what I know/understand.” Follow it up with another question: “What do you think?”
3. Tailor your approach to their age
Be aware of what’s comforting to a child based on their age and developmental level.
“If your kids aren’t in school yet, there’s no reason to bring it up,” recommends Dr. Berkowitz. But if they have older siblings, young children may overhear family discussions about school shootings. Be ready to comfort them at an age-appropriate level.
“Younger kids basically want to know that you’re going to keep them safe,” says Dr. Berkowitz. If a young child has heard about school shootings and brings up the topic, say something like, “It’s our job to keep you safe—you don’t have to worry about that.”
Remind young kids to listen to their teachers—they’re trained and know what to do in these situations.
You can acknowledge the worry with older grade-school and middle-school kids, but emphasize that school shootings are very rare events in the grand scheme of things.
“School is generally very safe,” says Dr. Berkowitz. “Remind them that almost every school district is enhancing security to make sure these things don’t happen.”
Depending on your child’s developmental level, you might reiterate that their teachers train for it and know what to do to keep them safe. Or, you might skip ahead to the teenager approach. You know your child best—there’s no right answer defined by their age.
Make sure you double-down on listening mode when talking about school shootings with teenagers in particular. “One of the best ways to start is to wonder what their friends are talking about with regards to this,” advises Dr. Berkowitz.
“One of the reasons that works is that it’s much easier to talk about your friends than it is yourself, particularly with parents. You’ll hear what they’re thinking through that.”
4. Help your child cope with anxiety
Don’t avoid talking to your kids about school shootings for fear of giving them anxiety, but do be prepared to offer up some coping strategies.
“It’s such a common question: ‘Am I causing more distress?” notes Dr. Berkowitz. “They may get distressed, but it’s even more distressing when it goes ignored.”
If it’s on your kid’s mind, it’s worth talking about. But if they seem to be preoccupied with the subject of school shootings, one thing Dr. Berkowitz recommends is teaching them focused breathing exercises.
Focused breathing exercises for kids
Focused breathing exercises involve paying attention to each inhale and exhale, and there are a surprising number of ways to do this.
A basic breathing exercise involves counting to four as you inhale, holding your breath for a count of four, and exhaling as you count to four again. Variations include breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth, skipping the “hold your breath” step, or exhaling for a longer count than the inhale. Your child can count to whatever number feels comfortable—it’ll vary from person to person and situation to situation.
To help your kids settle into the exercise, have them trace a shape like a triangle, star, or square as they inhale, hold, and exhale. Have them imagine blowing bubbles—or make it fun by practicing with real bubbles. Kids can also imagine smelling a flower, blowing out a candle, or blowing up a balloon.1
My personal favorite breathing exercise involves snuggling up to my dogs and matching their breaths as they snooze, or taking one deep breath for every two of theirs.
5. Have a game plan for trauma care
Next, know what to do if the worst happens and someone you know is killed or injured in a school shooting. FEMA and SAMHSA typically set up crisis counseling services for these situations, which are a good start. But you’ll also need a local, long-term team. Knowing what to do and who to contact can help with your own anxiety on the topic too.
Don’t gloss over the need for professional attention. “People should process,” says Dr. Berkowitz. “Some people are good at doing that on their own. Most aren’t.”
“Interpersonal violence actually has a greater impact than other kinds of situations,” he continues. “So when it’s a school shooting, it’s likely to cause more trauma-related symptoms than if it’s a natural disaster. And one of the things that makes it more complicated is you often will have a mix of grief response as well as traumatic stress symptoms.”
School shootings and anxiety disorders
Dr. Berkowitz suggests that kids who already struggle with anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress, or other psychiatric concerns should be allowed to opt-out of active shooter drills. Talk to the school about alternatives.
And if your child seems to have obsessive anxiety about school shootings, it’s worth seeing a therapist or clinician. Your pediatrician can give recommendations or formal referrals.
Finally, there is a link between school shootings and anxiety disorders, but not the one you might expect. According to Dr. Berkowitz, “One of the things we do know is these kinds of events are often the precipitant to anxiety disorders in vulnerable kids. So, somebody who may develop an anxiety disorder down the road—it may happen earlier because this is so anxiety-provoking.”
Unfortunately, we can’t bubble-wrap our kids and protect them from everything stressful and alarming. But you can help your child recognize their anxiety symptoms, guide them through coping strategies, and provide access to professional care when needed.
You’re an important sounding board for your kids, but don’t forget about your own health too.
“These events are horrific to begin with, but then in the context of the general overwhelm most of us are feeling, they’re even bigger and even harder to manage,” says Dr. Berkowitz. “The best way to manage that is being connected with friends and family with whom you feel able to discuss what’s going on. That’s really important.”
Dr. Berkowitz recommends parents ground themselves in the facts, explaining that humans naturally over-value large-scale, catastrophic events. “Look at the data and recognize that there are things much more common than school shootings,” he says.
“The parents I’ve heard from the most are those whose kids are just entering school for the first time,” Dr. Berkowitz continues, “because they don’t have good contacts and experience. I often suggest they contact the school, find out what the protocols are, what the parent’s role is, and so on and so forth. Being informed about all these things can help a great deal with your worries.”
He also recommends taking stock of what you’re anxious about. If there are many things causing you anxiety, consider learning coping strategies from a therapist. In the meantime, the breathing exercises outlined above can help.
“One of the things that we really do recommend to teachers is to be very clear that these things are going to happen—almost always as drills—and that this is all about maintaining and keeping everybody safe,” says Dr. Berkowitz.
He also notes that there are different models for school shooting drills, but the bottom line is that the best way for kids to stay safe is to listen to their teachers.