Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

How to talk to children about school shootings

Uvalde, Texas is just eight hours away from Las Cruces Public Schools. Any time we hear news of a school shooting, the community is shaken to its core. Anger, fear, disbelief and grief wash over us as many are glued to the television and social media trying to make sense of the unimaginable. When it happens so close to home, a whole other layer was added. For adults in the community, those students look like our students; we see our own children reflected in the faces of the children that died in Uvalde. Understandably, this leads to strong emotions in adults. As we navigate that, it is important that we also remain aware of and sensitive to what children need from us in the face of horrific tragedy.

School psychologist Melissa Reeves, who is co-author of the crisis response curriculum PREPaRE, sat down with the Director and Coordinator of Behavioral Health for Las Cruces Public Schools and shared poignant advice on how adults can respond to our children’s questions or concerns in the aftermath of a school shooting.

Allowing children, whatever their age, to be our guide in how we respond to them is the first order of business. Some children may be thinking about the tragedy, asking a lot of questions and expressing many fears. It’s important that we answer honestly, and with as much compassion as we can when talking to our children. Others may not be acutely aware of what happened, or it may feel distant enough from their own lives that they are OK. This may be more common than we would expect, and in fact adults tend to worry about school shootings more than children do. It’s important to notice that, and not create distress where it doesn’t already exist by asking children to talk about it when they don’t want to or exposing them to too much information on television. While checking in with children is advisable so that they know it’s an open topic for conversation, adults should be careful not to overshare and inadvertently spread anxiety to children when they may not have been anxious to begin with.

There are highly sensitive children who will experience a great deal of worry considering what they know happened. In those cases, caring adults can and should reiterate to them that school shootings, according to criminologists, are actually very rare. When they do happen, we are inundated with live reports and updates which can make them feel more imminent and more of a threat than they are. dr Jamie Howard, Ph.D. and Director of Trauma and Resilience at The Child Mind Institute noted recently that the constant and graphic coverage surrounding school shootings on television and social media can make it seem like a bigger threat than it is. dr Howard wrote at childmind.org, “The more you watch, the more it tricks your mind into thinking it’s an increased probability of occurring.” Knowing that, it behooves adults to limit their children’s exposure to coverage of the school shooting.

However, some awareness of threats of violence at school or other public venues is important and should be framed in the context of how we can keep ourselves and each other safe. Remind children that lots of adults are watching out for them. Teach them to be aware of their environment and tune into their gut feelings. If something feels off, it probably is, and children should know who their safe adults are and that it’s important to tell a safe adult when they see or hear something that might indicate an act of violence.

When teachers and parents talk about safety measures and practice things like safety drills, doing so with calm, confidence and competence also mitigates negative outcomes for children. We can send a message to our young people that we will protect them, they are not helpless, and there are things like situational awareness, knowing where to go and how to respond in a crisis, and keeping an open line of communication with trusted adults , can all be within their control and can keep them safe.

Amy Himelright, LPCC is the Director of Mental Health and Academic Counseling for Las Cruces Public Schools. You can be reached at [email protected]

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