School shootings and other highly covered media events that involve violence impact us all. Regardless of your age, background or experiences, these events pull on our heart strings and cause us to assess the safety of ourselves and our loved ones.
Children in school today have a far greater realization of the potential safety risks given the frequency of these events and the associated media attention. It is pivotal that adults prepare for and are able to facilitate conversations with the children in their lives if age appropriate and especially if there is a possibility that the child may become aware of the event via television, social media or peers.
Before you start the conversation, it is important to recognize the difference in the ways that adults and children process information. Adults may have the capacity to fully understand or come to terms with the event and identify the ways in which they are safe to move forward navigating their world. Children, on the other hand, may experience inaccurate or unhelpful thoughts that can impact the way they view their world, especially with regard to their safety.
When preparing for the discussion, consider the following:
- Age of the child
- Any past experiences of trauma or safety concerns
- Any mental health diagnoses or learning disabilities that may impact the ability to process
- What the child already knows about the event
Preparing and ensuring we can be neutral allows the child to be in the driver’s seat and share what has been most relevant to them about the event.
- Determine what they know, and how they know it, before sharing any additional details or information.
- Remember honesty is important, but done in a way that is appropriate for the child. This may mean acknowledging to an elementary school student that “you’re right, a scary thing happened at another school, and people were hurt.”
- Keep in mind that the way these events are discussed with a six year old is dramatically different from a teenager. Young children may be more apt to focus on the chronicle of events and a teenager may be more able to discuss how they feel about the situation. Older children may be more aware of details of the event and may need more support to identify how they are thinking and feeling.
- Look for opportunities to identify the positives, such as the heroic teachers and first responders who rushed in to help.
- Acknowledge that there are bad things that happen in the world and identify the way in which the child can feel they are currently safe.
It may feel uncomfortable, but remember that this conversation is better had with a trusted adult than another peer who is also trying to make sense of it.
Finally, remember that adults do not need to facilitate these conversations on their own. There are professionals who can provide guidance or consultation, especially if there are other factors such as behavioral health needs or a trauma history that impacts a child’s ability to process and cope with the event.
If you or your child needs help in dealing with topics, speak to a mental health professional.