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Talking to your Children about School Shootings and Other Tragedies

By: Dr. Jeremy Fink, LCSW Psy.D.  |  February, 15 2018

The attack that killed 17 people yesterday at a Parkland, Florida high school is the 8th shooting that has occurred at a U.S. school in the past 7 weeks. I am deeply saddened by this, and my heart goes out to the families and friends of those directly affected by these tragedies. I am aware that it's impossible to shelter your children from the knowledge of these horrible events, and I know that many parents are struggling right now about how to talk to their children about it.

Over the past 24 hours I have been contacted by concerned parents, a local school psychologist, and a journalism student at Pepperdine University doing a piece on the topic of how to talk to your children about the school shooting. Everyone is asking the same questions, what do we say and what do we tell them if they ask us why these things are happening?

The simple answer is to reassure your child, but this requires something much more challenging from us, the adults. It requires that we be brave, empathize with our children, harness an ability to remain morally upright, and to not lose our hope and trust in humanity. 

Appropriate to your child's age and temperament, find ways to reassure them that everything is going to be okay. If you struggle for what may be appropriate for your child to hear, find out first what they already know and ask them about their feelings, if they're scared, if they worry, if they don't feel safe at school. Talking about their feelings can help them to feel less overwhelmed and scared. Then help them to feel more secure by reassuring them that their parents, grandparents, teachers, friends are going to look out for them and will not let something bad happen to them. It's also important to help your children focus on the helpers. It is important that the view of those in a position to help such as the police, doctors, religious leaders, and even the president, be held in high regard during these times. Divided political views, social issues, and critical opinions about the roles of these appointed individuals should not be emphasized, rather children will benefit to know that the people who are here to help are doing their jobs the best that they can.    

And then there is the dreaded question of WHY? Why did this happen? It's difficult to provide an answer to our child when we, as adults, don't fully understand it ourselves, and I think it's okay to be transparent about this. I do not know, is a perfectly fine answer. Children know when the adult is being disingenuous, don't talk down to a child, rather speak to them as smaller people. It is okay to not have an answer for why something terrible has happened, and this doesn't prevent you from reassuring your children that they are safe. 

Being simple and honest is best when talking to children. But the most difficult part about being the adult is managing our own feelings and fears during these times. If we allow the tragic events that occurred in Florida, or Kentucky, or Los Angeles to diminish our faith and trust in humanity then we will translate this to our children, and this will be a great loss. If this happens we will have allowed our fears to prevent us from truly seeing and understanding our children's perspective, rendering our efforts to help them futile.