How to talk to your kids about school shootings

A local therapist offers advice on what to tell children about the shooting at a Texas elementary school that killed 19 students. Kids need to know their parents are willing to talk about things.

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May 27, 2022 - 3:36 PM

When discussing difficult topics with children, it’s best to be honest, a local therapist says. Photo by UNSPLASH.COM/TAYLOR HEERY

In the wake of the Uvalde, Texas school shooting this week, local therapists want children to know that they, too, are struggling to wrap their heads around the violence.

Sarah Lange

“I tell my kids that even with a fully developed brain, I can’t understand how someone could do this. You can’t rationalize irrational behavior,” said Sarah Lange, a licensed clinical social worker. “And while I don’t expect my kids, who are still growing and still trying to grasp the world, to understand the shooting, I can help them cope.”

Lange works at the Chanute office for the Southeast Kansas Mental Health Center two days a week as well as from her home in Independence. Her family includes four children ranging from age 18 to age 4.

On Tuesday, an 18-year-old male shot and killed 19 elementary students and two teachers at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, a small town in southern Texas. 

Nationwide, people are reeling at the horror of the slayings.

That imbalance can be particularly unsettling for young people, Lange said, who offered her  insights and suggested coping skills.

“When things feel out of control, it’s best to focus on what you can control and keep things as consistent as possible.”

Even with school out, Lange advises keeping bedtime routines to ensure youths are getting a good night’s sleep. It’s also important to make certain they are eating and drinking enough and getting together with their friends. 

Keep the door open

Kids need to know their parents are willing to talk about the shootings. 

“For teens, we recommend talking at dinner or maybe even in the car when you can have their undivided attention and be able to talk openly without a lot of distractions,” Lange said. 

To get the discussion rolling, Lange suggested a parent say how he or she feels about the situation or their concerns.

“It’s always important to be as honest as you can be, and sometimes that includes just saying you don’t understand how a mass murder can happen either, but you and others do know how to make them feel safe.”

It’s always important to be as honest as you can be, and sometimes that includes just saying you don’t understand how a mass murder can happen either, but you and others do know how to make them feel safe.

Sarah Lange, therapist

For older teens who may feel inspired to take action against the violence, Lange said parents should not discourage them.

“These are important resolution skills and healthy forms of communication. It’s important for youths to stick up for themselves and their beliefs, whether through protests, writing to their politicians or whatever they can do. These are healthy actions that help counter the feeling of helplessness.”

For upper elementary and early middle school ages, it’s important to help children separate reality from fantasy. At this age, children’s imaginations go down all sorts of rabbit holes wondering what could happen in the case of someone bad entering the school.

Practicing safety drills help assure children there’s a plan in such an instance. But Lange doesn’t advise doing one on the heel of a tragedy such as this week’s.

“They can also instill a lot of fear, like why are they making us practice this? Do they think this is going to happen here?”

“Timeliness is everything. Kids need to know what to do. Being prepared is how we increase a sense of safety. But not the day after there was an active shooter incident.”

For younger children, how their parents handle anxiety influences their responses.

“It’s the responsibility of adults to not unnecessarily project their fears onto their children,” Lange said. “At times like this, we want to blow up and blame other people,” but such displays are dangerous for children to witness.

“Children need to learn how to regulate their emotions,” Lange said. “This is a perfect opportunity for adults to be good role models.” 

It’s also important to keep discussions age-appropriate.

Lange said her 4-year-old son is unaware about the shootings, and as such Lange does not intend to discuss the incident with him.

“I wouldn’t want to make him scared to go to school,” she said. “You need to shield little ones from information or actions that might be above their level of understanding to avoid instilling more fear or anxiety,” she said.

AFTER CHILDREN have been exposed to trauma, it’s important to watch for effective coping skills to kick in two to four weeks later.

Signs that help may be needed are if they are struggling to get to sleep at night or if they are acting abnormally.

“If you notice a month from now that your child is still having some really extreme reactions to this or any traumatic event, we would recommend having them talk to somebody, whether that be a therapist or a family doctor,” she said.

In times of a national tragedy, it’s important to limit you and your child’s exposure to the news, Lange advised.

“While being informed is great, when you can feel it creating anxiety, you should really look at limiting that exposure. Even if it’s providing accurate information, it can be overwhelming and be akin to post-traumatic stress disorder. Even if we never went through the event itself, simply experiencing it second-hand can create trauma,” she said.

Typical reactions to the Texas school shooting include anger, sadness, fear, worry, and even guilt. 

“Some of us feel guilty that we get to send our kids back to school or out to play with their friends,” she said. “There’s also a sense of fear of letting them out of our sight. Again, it’s important not to project those fears onto our children.

When asked whether Lange hesitated sending her four children to school on Wednesday in Independence, she said no.

But Tuesday’s tragedy did wake Lange up to the senselessness of a dispute she was having with her teenage son.

“He had struggled with finals and I had been upset with him Tuesday night. But Wednesday morning, thinking about Texas changed my tone. I was so thankful he was even here to argue! It changed how I interacted with him.”

“I thought I did not want him to leave for school feeling angry. If something were to happen, I would never forgive myself.”

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