How to Talk to Your Child About Mass Shootings — Talkspace

Navigating the Conversation by Age

Depending on your child’s age and level of maturity, your conversation can sound very different. Here are tips and ways you can adjust your messaging for any aged child.

Talking with young children

Young children will need a loving, calm environment when you’re having tough conversations like this. Consider keeping it very informal and comfortable. Cuddling on a couch might be better for them than sitting at a dining table, for example.

It’s possible that very young children might not have heard about the latest school shootings. Experts advise you to broach the subject with them tenderly, and through open-ended questions like: have they heard about a tragedy at a school, and do they want to talk about it?

Be patient

Patience is always important when you’re a parent, but it becomes even more critical when we’re talking about something as heavy as school shootings. Be prepared for your young child to have a range of emotions. They may have a lot of questions, and they can even ask the same thing multiple times.

Be as patient as possible, and let them be as repetitive as they need to be in order to start feeling safe again.

Offer as much comfort as necessary

Don’t rush the conversation. Give as many hugs as they need, wipe as many tears as fall, and make sure the conversation is at their comfort level.

“Provide them with basic information and assure them of their safety. They need your responsibility more than anything.”

Talkspace therapist Bisma Anwar, LMHC

Limit their exposure

Especially if your child is young, try to really limit their exposure to media and news covering any recent mass school shooting, like the Uvalde shooting. We use the news to inform us, and at the right age, that can be a good way to process what we’re feeling. For younger children especially, being inundated with the same horrifying visual and hearing the same talking points over and over can make it more challenging to move forward.

Have several short conversations instead of one long one

If you sense your young child is shutting down or tuning out, that’s OK. Let their body language, eye movement, and engagement in the conversation help you determine when enough is enough.

You may need to take a break and come back to the discussion later. Some kids can’t handle everything all at once. Their brain might start to go into self-preservation mode when they’ve had enough, and it’s important to recognize and acknowledge that.

Give them tools to use when they’re anxious

Strategies that can quell anxiety will follow people throughout life. Teach children to use any of the following self-care, relaxing techniques that can help them deal with anxiety:

Read books about fear

Children’s books can be a great resource when you’re helping a child come to terms with things they’re afraid of. Plus, reading together offers a great chance to cuddle and get some one-on-one downtime.

Talking with twins

Tweens are already dealing with a lot in their rapidly-changing life. Their bodies are changing, their emotions might feel unstable as hormones begin to rage out of control, and they’re likely more emotional than they were even just a couple years ago. For this reason alone, you might want to take some additional steps when helping them try to come to terms with something as frightening as school shootings.

encourage dialogue over media exposure

Snapchat, Instagram, and TikTok are probably your tween’s lifeline. They communicate with their friends and establish and navigate social circles differently than we did at their age. It’s important to keep your finger on the pulse of what they’re being exposed to, especially when it comes to serious subject matters like violence and mass shootings.

encourage your twin to talk (yes, with their voice, not through a text or a snap) to eliminate the unintentional exposure they’re probably getting through various social media platforms and Internet sites.

You also might strongly consider using an app that’s designed for parents to monitor a child’s digital exchanges. Some of the better parental control software tools include:

Suggest they talk to their school counselor

Remind your tween that as they get older, they might need more than just mom and dad to talk to. Ressure them that this is normal and OK. Let them know they can always go to a school counselor, online therapist, or teacher if they’re afraid, confused, or worried about anything in their life.

Be honest with them

Your twin is smart. Lying to them, or telling them there’s nothing to worry about, can actually be detrimental to your relationship. You want to solidify their trust in you and build their confidence in knowing they can come to you with a problem or fear in the future.

Listen to their fears and concerns

It’s easy as parents to get so caught up in trying to show and teach our kids, we forget to just listen to them. When you’re discussing those hard topics, where emotions can run the gamut, it can pay off to just listen.

We know that, particularly in the not-quite-teenager years, kids can find it especially challenging to put their fears and emotions into words. If your tween seems like they’re struggling to express how they feel, give them the opportunity by offering them a platform to talk.

Tips for talking to a tween:

  • Don’t pepper them with information or questions in the beginning
  • Stay neutral in your responses so you don’t sound like you’re judging them or their feelings
  • Be mindful of your body language and facial expressions
  • Watch their body language
  • Use open-ended questions (versus yes-no ones)
  • Try not to offer solutions or guarantees
  • Validate their feelings

“Take time to answer their questions. Help them reality check their more negative thoughts that stem from their anxiety.”

Talkspace therapist Bisma Anwar, LMHC

Talking with teenagers

Teens can be notoriously difficult to communicate with. Eye rolls, annoyance, and even anger can be their go-to way of communicating. Reassure your teen that you just want to check in with how they’re feeling and that you know how hard things might be right now.

Acknowledge that anger is normal

Feelings of anger are natural (and can even be healthy), but caution teenagers about letting that anger take over. Look for signs that their anger is misdirected. Who are they angry at? The world? Someone who engaged in a senseless act of violence? A school for missing the signs of someone who needed help?

All of these can be valid, but processing anger is a skill that must be taught. Let your teen know that their anger should be something that eventually resolves.

Help teens manage feelings of anger by showing them how to:

  • Identify physiological signs of anger — feeling flushed, increased heart rate, clenched fists — and practice calming techniques
  • Pause before reacting when they are upset — take a beat, count to 10
  • Recite a calming mantra when emotions start to build up like this too shall pass..
  • Express (in a positive way) — write feelings in your journal or find someone to talk to

Let them know they can turn anger into action

One of the scariest parts of life for teens might be that they feel helpless. Give them actionable ways to take control and feel empowered. Encourage your teen to be a leader, if that’s their personality. They can:

  • Start a group or club at school to write letters to politicians about school safety
  • Start a support group and ask a counselor to help them lead it
  • Spearhead a campaign that focuses on the importance of mental health access for teens

If your teenager isn’t comfortable taking the lead on some of these things, they can still participate. They might want to join nationwide groups of other students who are taking action and demanding change.

  • Students Demand Action is a group of high school and college purposely committed to ending gun violence. They help students organize walkouts and provide support for struggling young adults.
  • Secure Storage Resolutions gives teens a plan they can take to school boards actions be taken surrounding responsible gun storage.

Reinforce the idea: if you see something, say something

This is a big topic on school campuses across the nation these days. Reinforce the idea that if your teen notices something or someone whose words or actions are concerning, they should say something. It’s essential they know to reach out to an adult and avoid the temptation to share information with peers or on social media.

“Remind them about safety procedures and how they can also play a role in them. Go over how they can access resources in school and the community.”

Talkspace therapist Bisma Anwar, LMHC

Give them coping tools

There are many psychological effects of mass shootings that impact mental health. Learning to manage stress and anxiety is a skill that will help them cope after traumatic events and can also take teens through the often-challenging times they’ll experience as they enter young adulthood. Instilling the importance of self-care will be beneficial for their mental health for decades. Self-care is not only an excellent way to deal with the trials and tribulations of life, but also, can help you manage any mental health challenges or conditions.

Let your teen know about the following ways that can help them deal with difficult times and emotions in life after a mass shooting:

  • Journaling
  • Eating healthy
  • Working out
  • Sleeping well
  • Asking for help

Being a parent is more challenging now than it’s ever been before. That you even need to think about how to talk to your child about mass shootings is beyond troubling. It’s a terrible reality that none of us can explain. Our job as parents, though, is to try. Don’t wait to talk to your kids — you have the tools to do so with this guide.

“If you notice significant changes in your child’s behavior and reactions then please seek the help and support of a mental health professional.”

Talkspace therapist Bisma Anwar, LMHC

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