How to talk to children about school shootings after six people killed at Nashville school
Written by ABC AUDIO on March 28, 2023
(NEW YORK) — Just as the school week began across the country Monday, news broke that another school shooting was unfolding in the United States.
On Monday morning, according to officials, three children and three staff members were shot and killed at the Covenant School, a private Christian school for students in preschool through sixth grade, in Nashville, Tennessee.
The suspect was shot and killed by authorities inside the school. No one who was shot survived, officials said.
The deadly shooting is one of the nearly 130 mass shootings that have taken place so far this year in the U.S., according to the Gun Violence Archive, which defines a mass shooting as one in which four or more victims are shot or killed, not including the shooter.
The Nashville school shooting is now also on the long list of school shootings that have taken place in the past decade, since the Dec. 14, 2012, shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School that claimed the lives of 20 students and six educators.
With each school shooting, the number of people affected by school shootings grows, as do the conversations parents and caregivers must have with kids about the reality of gun violence in the U.S.
Read on to see five tips from experts on how to discuss school shootings with kids:
1. Be proactive in talking with kids.
ABC News chief medical correspondent Dr. Jennifer Ashton said last July — shortly after 19 students and two teachers were killed at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas — that topics like school shootings should be discussed with kids in a proactive way.
“The first step is to make an age-appropriate dialogue, open lines of communication with your child,” Ashton said, later adding, “We shouldn’t sit back and wait for them to come up and say, ‘Mom, Dad, I’d like to talk about gun violence.'”
She continued, “We’re going to need to take the first step and come to them early and often and say, ‘What are you thinking about? What are you afraid of? What questions do you have?'”
Ashton also encouraged parents and caregivers to lead with honesty and transparency and to not be afraid to say “I don’t have an answer” or to share their feelings.
If an adult doesn’t have an answer, Ashton recommended they use dialogue like, “I don’t have an answer to that but I’ll help you find it.”
And if an adult has fear after a school shooting as children often do, Ashton said they can reassure a child by saying, “I know you’re scared, so am I, but let me tell you what your teachers and what your parents and community are trying to do to help you stay safe.”
2. Be truthful about what happened.
Dr. Melissa Brymer, director of terrorism and disaster programs at the UCLA-Duke National Center for Child Traumatic Stress, said parents and caregivers should be truthful with kids about school shootings that happen, but in an age-appropriate way.
“As hard as it is, we need to be truthful about what happened,” Brymer told ABC News last year. “And make sure we answer kids questions truthfully.”
She continued, “For our young kids, they don’t need to have all the details. Many times they’re going to be worried about their safety, your safety as a parent or caregiver or their family members’ safety, so we want to reiterate what’s being done to help them right now.”
Brymer said parents should be prepared for teenagers to want a “much more in-depth conversation.”
“How do we talk about what this event has meant that might have impacted our value system?” Brymer said of a potential conversation starter with a teen. “Can you encourage your kids to think about is there a club or some type of activity that they can do within their schools to show and create change? In these times, many of us start to feel lonely. How do we reach out to those that might not have someone in their life?”
3. Reach out to others for support.
Brymer also suggested parents and caregivers take a “pause” to think about how an event like a school shooting affects their own emotions so they can be ready to talk to their kids.
“Sometimes we don’t have the words right away,” Brymer said. “We might need to reach out to our own support systems and have those conversations, and then we can have them with our kids.”
If a child’s stress levels or response to a mass shooting are hard to manage, experts say parents and caregivers shouldn’t hesitate to seek guidance from their pediatrician, a school counselor, social worker or other mental health experts. Parents should also seek out professional mental health help if they are struggling.
4. Keep an eye out for changes in kids’ behaviors.
Psychiatrist and author Dr. Janet Taylor said children may respond to disturbing news about mass shootings in different ways, and parents and caregivers should pay attention to see if their child’s behaviors change.
Children may experience problems focusing, have difficulty sleeping or become more irritable, according to Taylor.
“If you have younger children and they suddenly get more clingy or want to sleep in bed with you, pay attention to that and cuddle them as they need it,” Taylor told ABC’s Good Morning America in 2022. “Older kids may become more isolated or feel that they have to solve things by themselves.”
5. Remember to check-in with kids.
Instead of discussing a school shooting only once, Robin Gurwitch, a licensed clinical psychologist and Duke University professor, said it’s crucial to continue the conversation over time.
“A one-and-done conversation is not sufficient,” Gurwitch told ABC News in 2018, after 17 students and teachers were killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. “Let your child or teenager know that ‘I really do care about you and I am open to having this discussion.'”
She continued, “It is really important to check back in tomorrow, to check back in the next day, to find out, ‘What are your friends talking about related to this school shooting?'”
The National Child Traumatic Stress Network offers comprehensive resource guides for parents, caregivers and educators to support students. Click here for resources related to school shootings.
If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide, free, confidential help is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Call or text the national lifeline at 988. Even if you feel like it, you are not alone.
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