- School shootings in particular call into question the safety of the place where they spend five days a week. If he’s not exposed to repeated television images, a kindergartner or first grader may be oblivious. But a second or third grader, who may see more TV and hear more talk on the playground, might be surprisingly tuned in
Very few of us will ever be personally touched by a gunman who opens fire in public. But when one of these events hits the news, it can confuse and scare school-age kids, who need to see the world as a safe and predictable place.
School shootings in particular call into question the safety of the place where they spend five days a week. If he’s not exposed to repeated television images, a kindergartner or first grader may be oblivious. But a second or third grader, who may see more TV and hear more talk on the playground, might be surprisingly tuned in.
“The older the child is, the more aware he is of what’s going on,” says Ted Feinberg, a school psychologists. A grade-schooler is old enough to understand that death is permanent, but not old enough to get that if a shooting was in another country, his own school is relatively safe. He may worry that someone at his own school will do the same, and may be afraid to go to sleep or have bad dreams. He may fear being away from you or going to school. At school, he may have trouble concentrating or sitting still.
Some kids will complain of headaches, stomachaches, or tiredness. As a parent, you have the challenge of helping your child feel secure when you’re probably feeling insecure yourself. Remember that sticking to comforting routines and steering clear of repetitive, scary news reports will reassure you as well as your child.
How to talk about violent events in the news
Validate your child’s feelings. Resist the urge to say, “Don’t be sad and scared.” His feelings are real, and he needs to be able to express them. You can say, “I know you might be worried because you’ve heard so much about what happened at that school. But your teachers, and I are doing everything we can to keep you safe.”
Stick to routines. After a scary event, you may be tempted to overprotect your child and keep him closer to you. But your child will need a sense of normalcy. Urge him to go to school even if he’s afraid, and continue with your usual outings to the park, sports practices, and classes.
Be ready to revisit the topic Don’t be surprised if your child wants to talk about the shooting weeks after the event. He might not grasp that an event is far away from his school or affecting much older students. “Even if it’s college-related, it affects us,” notes Marjan Perry, an elementary school teacher. Gently probe your child’s understanding so you can clear up any misconceptions. Tell him that although school shootings get a lot of attention, they are very rare.
Monitor exposure to news
While you should avoid repetitive or graphic news about a school shooting or other violent event in the news, if your child is already aware of the incident it might be helpful to watch limited coverage together. That way you can answer his questions and help him process the information.
Tell him adults are working to keep him safe. A disaster may prompt a child this age to lose some confidence in the abilities of the adults around him. You can remind him that lots of people are responsible for keeping his school safe.
Common questions about violent events in the news
“What happened?” Give your child the basic facts: “A student entered a school with a gun and hurt some students and teachers.” Ask if he has any questions. The older he is, the more details he may ask for. Keep your answers honest but brief.
“Could this happen at my school?” In the face of disaster, children of all ages worry about risk to themselves and their loved ones. You can help him put it in perspective: “These kinds of things don’t happen very often — that’s why they make the news when they do. Bad guys don’t think much about you or other kids.”
“Why did this happen?” It may seem difficult to explain why someone would come to a school with a weapon. Say something like “I don’t know why this happened. Maybe the person who did this was mentally ill or extremely sad or angry and he took that out on other people. But he was wrong. Violence is never a good way to deal with your problems. It only causes more problems.”
“What happens when people die?” You can use this question as a springboard to talk about death, but in this case his underlying concern is really “Am I safe?” Reassure him that he’s in no danger from the bad guy, and that you and the rest of the family are safe, too. “We’re all okay, and we’re going to be okay” are important words for him to hear.
“Are there monsters under my bed?” Kids may become newly afraid of monsters, darkness, or other unknowns. After all, these phantoms are easier to contemplate than the possibility of a shooter.