Talking to children and youths about school shootings
by Cheryl Dizon-Reynante
On May 24, 2022, an 18-year-old gunman walked into Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, and killed at least nineteen students and two teachers. News of this event has made international headlines, resulting in renewed conversations about gun laws in the United States. This tragedy has touched the hearts of many, including some of our own children and youth in Canada.
We as adults have a challenging time making sense of what happened. Children have an even harder time and can experience the same difficult emotions that we do. If you have young ones in your life, it would be worthwhile to check in with them.
There are several things that you can do to help children struggling with stories that they hear and images they see on the news and in social media.
- Ask them about what they have heard. Be curious about what friends and social media are saying. If they are teenagers, it is very likely that they have heard about the school shooting. This may vary with younger children. It may not be helpful to bring it up if they are under eight years old and have not heard anything about the event. Developmentally, children that young have a very hard time understanding violence. But be aware that they may hear things from other children, and then it’s up to you to provide them with guidance and reassurance.
- Listen carefully and try to get a sense of what their understanding is. Help them to talk about fears and worries. Look out for misinformation and explain it to them in simple, clear, and age-appropriate language.
- Answer their questions directly and encourage them to continue coming to you with future questions. Children and teenagers, just like adults, will have worries about whether this will happen again. While it is important to be truthful about risk, emphasize that schools and families have plans in place. Talk about the difference between gun laws in Canada and the US. Giving kids the time and opportunity to talk about their thoughts and feelings helps them to cope better.
- Limit media exposure. Do not allow very young children to see troubling images or hear news broadcasts. Do not assume that they are distracted while you watch the news, or that they are “too young to understand.” Anything confusing can lead to distress. Limit your own news intake to manage your stress levels.
- Recognize common reactions such as trouble sleeping, loss of appetite, difficulty paying attention and concentrating. Youths may want to stick close to home more than usual. These reactions should decrease within a few weeks. Be patient and continue to invite them to talk.
- Show them how you are coping in healthy ways. Consider sharing your feelings about the event, but at a level they can understand. Talk about how important it is to deal with difficult news, and that humans naturally care about others, even strangers. Express sadness and empathy for the victims and their families. Highlight the helpers who are assisting victims and their families to heal. This emphasizes the good in people.
- Look for other people to help. Consider letting your child’s teacher and guidance counsellor know about what you are noticing. Other professionals that you can consult include their pediatrician or a mental health professional.
Cheryl Dizon-Reynante is a licensed therapist with the Canadian Counselling and Psychotherapy Association.