The latest mass shooting at a Texas elementary school is scary, confusing, and stressful for children and teens alike. For parents and other caregivers, trying to help a child cope—while managing their own emotions—can be a challenge. But as hard as it is to talk about these events, communication is crucial to helping children feel safe and easing their stress.
“Parents need to talk about this tragedy with their children,” says Randi D. Pochtar, PhD, clinical assistant professor in the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at NYU Grossman School of Medicine and a child and adolescent psychologist with NYU Langone’s Child Study Center. “You want to be sure that the information they get is coming from trusted, loving adults. Otherwise, they’re hearing it from friends or through social media, where the information can be distorted or more than what your child is ready for.”
Conversations about school shootings and other traumatic events should be tailored to the age of the child. A young child’s level of understanding is different than a teen’s, and this is a factor in determining how much information they need or can handle.
Talking to Preschool-Age Children
“Infants and toddlers can feel their parent’s intensified sense of danger and experience an anxiety that they cannot explain or put into words,” explains Erica Willheim, PhD, child and adolescent psychologist and research assistant professor in the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Preschoolers often pick up on tragic news by listening to their caregivers talk about it and observing how they respond to it.
“Young children may become afraid of things that never bothered them before, or repetitively talk or ask about the tragic event if they are verbal.” Other signs of stress in young children include increased separation anxiety, temper tantrums, nightmares, physical complaints, or a regression in developmental skills, such as toilet training or sleeping alone. Parents should not become alarmed unless these behaviors persist.
Young children communicate their experiences, feelings, and understanding of events through their play. To help children process their emotions, provide opportunities for drawing, painting, and symbolic play. “Let your child be close to you—give lots of hugs and cuddles—to reassure them until they are feeling calmer and less anxious,” says Dr. Willheim.
Talking to School-Age Children
For children in elementary school, follow their lead by answering questions with the minimum amount of information they can handle. Be careful not to go into too much detail right away, and let your child’s curiosity determine how much they need and want to know. The goal is to help children understand what happened or process images they’ve seen in the news or online.
“It is important to be honest,” says Adam D. Brown, PsyD, director of the Trauma Systems Therapy Training Center in the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and child and adolescent psychologist at the Child Study Center. “Many children will know on some level whether their parents are avoiding giving truthful answers. Even if you are doing so to shield or protect your child, that can backfire. Saying, ‘Your parents and your school are doing everything we can to make sure you are safe,’ is very different from saying, ‘There is nothing to worry about’ or assuring them they will be safe, which may ring false.”
The older the child is, the more information they will have absorbed on their own, often through social media. Start a conversation with your child, asking what they know and have seen, and what their specific worries are. Calmly sharing your own emotions can help youth process their own feelings.
“Parents serve as models for how to cope, and children often take cues from how trusted adults react,” says Dr. Brown. “It can be important to show that you are also worried or upset, which gives children a model for how to have strong feelings and cope in an effective way. If, however, a parent is having a very hard time, it may be best to find a way to get support so that your children are not scared or overwhelmed by their parents’ reactions.”
Children look to parents for how to respond to new or scary experiences, and parents tend to be more afraid than children are. So the more anxious you seem, the more fearful your child will be about these events. “Parents might be anxious about sending their child to school after a tragedy like this, but if you keep them home you’re sending the message that you don’t think school is safe,” says Dr. Pochtar. “We need to validate that this is scary and sad, but that there are protocols in place at their school to keep them safe, and you trust them.”
Talking to Teens
Teenagers, who have memories of the Sandy Hook and Parkland shootings, are more likely to feel angry that this keeps happening. Let your teen express their frustrations, and don’t hesitate to let them know you feel the same. “Teens respond to validation that is genuine and honest,” says Dr. Pochtar. “Try saying, ‘I’m angry too, and I’m angry at all us adults for not doing more to keep kids safe.’”
Afterwards, give teens a place to put that anger into action. That can be writing letters in support of legislation that can limit mass shootings, joining an activism group, or participating in a march or rally in your neighborhood.
Coping Strategies for the Whole Family
Here are some additional ways you can help your child and family in the wake of tragedy:
- Turn off the news. Seeing images on TV or listening to news reports can provide more information than young children are ready to process.
- Limit your social media use. Model positive behavior around social media, and use that time to engage with your child and talk through their emotions.
- Let your child know that the entire community—including school administrators, teachers, counselors, police, and neighbors—are invested in making sure they are safe and that everyone is looking out for each other.
- Stick to routines. The unpredictable is scary for children, and a predictable routine is especially reassuring when they are frightened or unsure. Being consistent about routines and rituals will help children feel more secure.
- Embrace self-care, for you and your child. Get outside, exercise, experience nature, write in a journal, or make art.
- If you are feeling extremely anxious or sad, talk to someone you trust. It’s just as important for you to manage your emotions, so that you can help your child.
- Remind your child that there are measures in place at school to protect them, including lockdown drills, which teach students and teachers what to do in the event of a violent act.
Here are some additional resources from NYU Langone’s Child Study Center:
- School Shootings: A Conversation with Child and Adolescent Psychologists featuring Dr. Pochtar and Lori K. Evans, PhD, site director at the Child Study Center
- The National Child Traumatic Stress Network