How should you talk to your kids about school shootings? Here’s what experts say

Tracy Paszotta, a kindergarten teacher at Littlejohn Elementary School, works through a lesson with students during small group time in class Monday, March 28, 2022, at the school in DeKalb.

For parents wondering how – or if – they should talk with their children about school shootings after this week’s massacre at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, local youth trauma experts said patience is key.

Adults should listen and be prepared to respond to a range of questions depending on their child’s age, said Colleen Parks, a licensed clinical social worker at the DeKalb County Family Service Agency. It’s also important for parents to identify themselves as someone who can be a child’s “safe” person who won’t judge them, said Parks, who also is the agency’s clinical director and associate executive director.

“We’re going to invite these kids to feel whatever they want to feel,” Parks said. “Give them extra hugs, extra kisses, extra ‘I love yous,’ but also provide them with space that’s both safe and open to allow these feelings to happen. Let’s get away from social media, let’s shut off the TV.”

Since Tuesday, shocking accounts of the Robb Elementary School shooting in Uvalde have pervaded headlines. Details outline harrowing events when an 18-year-old is said to have walked into the school building and killed 19 fourth graders and two teachers.

Ten days earlier, another 18-year-old walked into a Buffalo, New York, grocery store in a largely Black neighborhood and fatally shot 10 people. Police have since described the shootings as a racist extremism attack.

How much should children be shielded from learning about such events, and when should adults broach that topic? The focus should fall on how kids are engaging with the news, said Joe Troiani, a psychologist and behavioral health director at the Will County Health Department.

“It’s not to hide information from them but to be cautious of their intake,” Troiani said.

The American School Counselor Association recommends that parents be honest with children but gauge how much information to share based on a child’s age or developmental capabilities. Some children already may have experienced violence in their past, and adults might be unaware of underlying and unaddressed trauma, Parks said.

Before jumping into a heavy conversation, it’s important to identify where children’s thoughts are first. Do they have fears? What are they worried about? Maybe they have questions about current events. Help identify those questions first, Troiani said.

“The last thing a parent wants to do is say, ‘OK, we want to sit down and talk about this,’ ” Troiani said. “See where it is on your child’s radar. Is this something they’re thinking about? The child might say, ‘I’m afraid of it happening at my school.’ Then the next question is, ‘Why do you think that way?’ And the child might say there’s something going on at school.”

For some children, verbalizing their emotions on heavy topics might not be as easy.

“A bad situation might cause us to have icky feelings, and those icky feelings then trigger us emotionally,” said Parks, who works closely through the county’s Children’s Advocacy Center to help children who have experienced trauma. “Depending on the age of the child, they may not know how to verbalize or express that ‘This is anger’ or ‘I just threw this at you.’ ”

Parents can offer their children a chance to try and verbalize how they’re feeling in the moment or give them a safe space to let it out.

“You do you, and let me know when you’re ready for me” is a phrase Parks said she uses often with her grandchildren and clients.

“Remember, a challenging behavior that’s being presented from a child is a signal of a presence of an unmet need inside of them,” Parks said.

And if children don’t want to talk about it, don’t force them, Parks said.

The news of the day – and the prevalence of mass gun violence in the country – can leave one reeling, said Shawn LaPlante, an eighth-grade teacher at Huntley Middle School in DeKalb. And it’s something kids are picking up on, too.

In his social studies classroom Tuesday, one student presented a project on the 1999 Columbine High School massacre in Littleton, Colorado, when two senior high school students gunned down 12 students and one teacher.

“They presented it on Tuesday and even said in that presentation it’s scary to think of what’s to come,” LaPlante said. “And a couple hours later, [the Uvalde shooting] happened. At the secondary level, it’s certainly on kids’ minds, and they’re learning about it, and it’s a challenge.”

In an era when it’s not uncommon for schools to have active shooter drills, how do adults balance the need to prepare for the worst-case scenario while being mindful of a child’s mental state?

Parks recommended that children ages 7 to 11 have little to no access to social media. Youth 12 and older are likely already on their phones. But the more adults foster healthy lines of communication with their children, the more likely children will come to them when they’re in pain or see something that’s not right, Troiani said.

According to the ASCA, it’s also important to keep routines as normal as possible for children after a traumatic event occurs.

Not every answer should convey a bleak future, however. Parents should keep hope in the conversations, too, experts said.

“Parents, we role model this,” Troiani said. “Spend time with [your children], share your own positive outlook on things.”

Quality time together also is important, whether with a parent, guardian, friend or community club.

“There’s hope in every little thing we do,” Parks said. “And we share it with those kids through activities, through connections.”

Kelsey Rettke

Kelsey Rettke

Kelsey Rettke is the editor of the Daily Chronicle, part of Shaw Media and DeKalb County's only daily newspaper devoted to local news, crime and courts, government, business, sports and community coverage. Kelsey also covers breaking news for Shaw Media Local News Network.