When a tragic shooting takes place at a school, many parents struggle with how to address it with their children. It is a challenge to reassure your child that school is a safe place, and at the same time review emergency protocols so that they feel safe that they have a plan in place if something happens.
“For the majority of students, school is a safe and supporting environment,” Dr. Robin Gurwitch, a licensed clinical psychologist and professor at Duke University Medical Center, told ABC News in 2018, after the Parkland tragedy.
In this article, parents learn how to discuss the news with your children and some ideas for age-appropriate training that can help them stay safe.
Initiate the Conversation
Gurwitch, a member of the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, stressed that in situations like a mass tragedy, it is “extremely important” for parents and caregivers, especially those with children in high school, to bring up the topic.
She said, “To believe that our children don’t know that these events occur is wishful thinking. We live in an age where we can go online and see live feed of people leaving the school, of responders, it’s updated every few moments.”
Gurwitch suggests that if you are watching the news with your children, turn it off and talk about the events calmly in order to get an idea of what they know, where they are coming from, and what misconceptions they may have already heard.
She also said it is critical to reassure children that parents and adults at their school “are going to do everything we can to make you safe. Let them know that their school has plans in place to do everything to the best of their ability to make them safe.”
Make It Age Appropriate
When talking with your children, Gurwitch suggests that discussions about recent news should vary based on the age of your child. When it comes to children preschool age and below, she added that parents should limit their media exposure.
Gurwitch recommends addressing the incident directly with high school and middle school students. Let them know that you want to talk to them about the school shooting that happened and asking them what they know about it.
For younger children, Gurwitch recommended initiating the conversation by saying, “There was a very sad thing that happened at a school … today. It is very sad because people were hurt and people were killed, and I just want you to know about it if you hear kids talking about it at your school, and if you have any questions, you can talk to me.”
Regardless of your child’s age, Gurwitch stressed that parents should “most importantly show a willingness to answer questions,” and listen to their children’s concerns. “Younger children may ask the same question over and over again,” she added. “That is how they process information.”
Calm Their Fears
If your child or teen says they do not feel safe going back to school, Gurwitch suggests that you ask more questions, such as, “‘Tell me what it is that you’re worried about? What it is that you don’t feel safe about?'” she said. “Validate why your child may not feel safe. If we just discount it with a throwaway, ‘You are going to be fine,’ we shut down the conversation.”
Gurwitch added that you can reassure your child that “nowadays schools do have safety plans, and schools do practice shooting drills. Some people are concerned about practicing these drills, but it’s like fire drills, it doesn’t make kids more scared that fires are going to break out, it makes students feel more secure that they have a plan in place,” she said.
Invite Them to Help
Greg Ellifritz, safety expert and owner of Active Response Training, suggests informing your kids on ways they can help. He says, “Teach your students not to rationalize danger signs. In almost every school shooting, there have been opportunities for interdiction before the event occurred. Usually, a shooter will tell at least one other person of his plans. The confidant historically won’t report the shooter because he doesn’t believe that the shooter will follow through with his plans.”
“Tell your students to report any indications of school violence immediately,” Ellifritz says. “And even more importantly, ensure that such reports are fully investigated by school administrators or police.”
Further, teach your kids be kind and to insist their friends are also kind to others. This means if your child witnesses someone bullying another, they shouldn’t encourage the behavior by giving it an audience. Instead of laughing or supporting, they can let those who bully know that their behavior isn’t entertaining.
Help Them Make Good Decisions
Make your kids familiar with the concept of “normalcy bias” and how to instead be alert and situationally aware. Play “what if” games and help them build confidence in their judgment and decision-making abilities.
Shelley Hill of The Complete Combatant says, “There’s a reason your child’s storybooks are filled with colorful pictures and images. Visuals are proven to help increase learning retention for kids, adds context and makes it easier for kids to follow along and interpret the context of your conversations.”
Smart Choices Image Cards are designed to focus on your child processing primarily in pictures rather than words, so ideas are interconnected, and your child can see the relationship between elements (verbal discussion plus visual learning) in the whole.
Although the cards do not specifically address scenarios at school, you can choose to address many aspects of an emergency situation. They will help your child know what to do when presented with some difficult decisions.
Give Them Equipment and Training
After the shooting stops, there will likely be injuries, and paramedics can’t get in and help until law enforcement secures the scene. Without treatment, gunshot and stabbing victims can bleed to death. Most teachers already know Basic Life Support (BLS, formally CPR), but students can learn these live-saving skills, too. Immediate application of compression bandages, tourniquets, or clotting gauze can save lives.
Kids of all ages can learn age-appropriate life-saving wound care. If the bleeding is from an arterial source, death may only take 20 seconds to a couple of minutes, which means everyone has to act immediately! By educating your kids on how to apply pressure and apply a tourniquet, they can also help during a medical emergency. Students in middle school and high school can be trained in Stop the Bleed techniques and carry med kits in their school backpacks.
Revisit the Conversation
“I think that is really important to check back in tomorrow, to check back in the next day, to find out what are your friends talking about related to this school shooting,” Gurwitch said. “It is very important to get an understanding of how children are coping.”
As a parent, you remind your children about safety rules on a regular basis because teaching firearm safety is not a one-and-done discussion. Similarly, Gurwitch says, “When there is a tragedy … a one-and-done conversation is not sufficient. Let your child or teenager know that ‘I really do care about you and I am open to having this discussion.'”
If you notice your child or teen is distressed for a longer period of time, and Gurwitch added this may show up in “problems with sleep, problems with attention and focus, and increased irritability,” she recommends that parents reach out to their school guidance counselor, a local psychological association or even their pediatrician for further help.
Here are some additional resources for parents provided by the National Child Traumatic Stress Network Education Service Center: