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A Wake-up Call for Parents in the Aftermath of a School Shooting

Why you really need to be talking to your kids now.

Key points

  • Don't assume that just because a child is not talking about the school shooting that they aren't thinking about it.
  • Pay attention to your child's verbal and non-verbal language to detect their stress and anxiety.
  • Irritability, nastiness, or change in appetite and/or activities can all be typical behavior signaling internal stress. Don't ignore the signs.

“I am so tired. I just don’t have the energy to talk to my children about the mass shooting in Texas,” states a mom of three school-age children.

“I don’t think my children are really upset about the shooting. They haven’t said anything to me about it," says a father of 12-year-old twin boys.

Another mom I interviewed after this latest school massacre shared that her elementary-age girls are frightened by what they saw on their TikTok feed. “My girls refuse to sleep in their own beds since the shooting happened.”

These are scary times for children and, let’s be honest, adults, too.

In my 2019 book, Lockdown, I wrote: “I am terrified for the lonely, angry student who sits alone during lunch and feels like the only one who has no friends. I fear for the innocent students and school staff who attend school with the intention to learn and teach. The fact that it is so easy for children to have access to guns, usually their parents', and bring them to school with the intention to kill other students should keep awake every elected official, school board member, school administrator, and parent. We must acknowledge that our children are dying from gun violence. They are traumatized by the fear of dying in school.”

“Nothing has changed" is a phrase I have heard often on the news, but I challenge that many things have changed, including the frequency of mass shootings in America and the mass consumption of content from social media. Together, these two factors have resulted in a record-breaking number of children and adults feeling anxious, suicidal, and depressed. This puts a huge responsibility on parents to find quiet opportunities to speak honestly and directly with children.

Let me assure you that in the hundreds of interviews that I have conducted for research with children and parents, as well as educators and mental health professionals, that children and teens have big—I mean really big—feelings, reactions, and thoughts about school shootings. Don’t be disarmed by shoulder shrugs, or their saying, “I am fine, I don’t need to talk.” Be creative. Be persistent. If they don’t want to talk to you, find someone else for your child to speak with—friends, relatives, clergy, or therapists.

Wake-up call tips

1. Self-care. Start with yourself. Create space for you to feel your emotions, whether it is anger, grief, or sadness. Breathe. Limit your time watching news coverage and your time on social media.

2. Educate yourself in preparation for the discussion. Know your facts: For example, find out your school's security policy. Talk to parents in other communities. Email your principal, school board member, and/or superintendent, asking: How often does my child have school security drills? What type of drills are conducted? How long do the drills last? Do we have an armed security guard? Does the school send out an email by the end of the school day alerting us that a drill has occurred? What other safety procedures are in place? Are drills are announced as drills at the time of the drill or only at the conclusion?

3. Talk with your child, not at them. Ask open-ended questions. Use “I” statements such as “I am having a difficult time stopping thinking about the shooting in Texas!” “I am deeply saddened to learn about the children who died in the school shooting.” Pause. Wait. Listen.

4. Be honest and direct. Don’t overload your child with graphic details about this event or other ones. Less is often more.

5. Let your curiosity be your guide. “Why is my child just shrugging their shoulders when I mention the shooting?” Look directly into their eyes, and greet them with a smile. Validate who they are, not what you hope they will say or do.

6. What age is too young to talk to about school shootings? Seven years old and younger is too young to bring up the shooting. However, if they ask you questions give some basic information.

7. Spend time together. Be a positive role model. Take a walk in nature. Exercise. Have a cup of tea together. Read or play games. Snuggle. Hug. One of my young clients states it best: “When I am anxious, I like to wrap myself up in a fuzzy blanket. I focus on the softness of the material and how it feels on my body instead of all the scary thoughts in my head.”

8. Focus on gratitude. A gratitude practice can help interrupt a child’s focus on scary and uncomfortable thoughts. Ask, "What three things are you grateful for today?"

9. Advocate. There is no age limit on learning how to advocate for what you think is right. This is a great time for young people to learn how to “find their voice” and let it be heard. There are numerous organizations to get involved with; better yet, do it together with your child.

10. Monitor not only where your child is hanging out on their electronic devices but for how long. Sit down with them in a calm manner and ask open-ended questions: “What are you seeing?” “What are you hearing?” “What are your thoughts?”

Remember that your child may not be comfortable or even know how to express their thoughts and feelings in relation to the mass shooting in Texas. Your job is to periodically check in on them by asking questions or sharing how you are feeling.

Don’t hesitate to reach out for help. Build a team of family, friends, clergy, and professionals to assist you. We must include the mental and emotional health of children in the discussion of their physical safety.