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10 Strategies for Talking to Children About School Shootings

Practical advice for navigating this seemingly impossible task.

Key points

  • If you ignore scary news, children will still know about it, they’ll just be getting information from someone who isn’t you.
  • Share information based on your child’s individual personality and developmental stage.
  • Know that whatever your child feels now is likely a normal part of their process, and is very likely to change over time.

The recent, devastating Oxford High School shooting is just one more in a long line of acts of school gun violence that have left children and their parents feeling unsafe and uncertain. Parents must find a way to straddle the fence between speaking honestly with their children about these issues and not triggering intense anxiety. Children must feel safe but also understand that bad things sometimes happen. It can feel like an impossible task. No parent should ever have to talk to a child about the possibility of being shot at school, but the current challenges of school violence mean that sooner or later all parents must have this conversation. Here are 10 strategies for getting the conversation right.

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Don’t ignore it

Children, even very young children, pick up on what's going on around them. They can see the anxiety written on their grown-ups’ faces. They can hear the news. They talk to friends. They practice lockdown drills at school. If you ignore scary news, children will still know about it, they’ll just be getting information from someone who isn’t you. So one of the most important things you can do is talk, however imperfectly.

Lead with safety

Every conversation needs to emphasize that children are safe. School shootings are extraordinarily rare. Adults must reassure kids they are safe, because kids struggle to assess risk. A small risk is easy for them to blow out of proportion. Reassure them that they are safe, that adults are doing everything they can to keep them safe, and that drills at school—which may feel scary—are actually there to make them safer.

Give developmentally appropriate information

Share information based on your child’s individual personality and developmental stage. At 4 or 5, a child might be only capable of learning that guns are dangerous, while an adolescent may need a complex discussion of why shootings happen, and the social structures that might stop them. Follow your child’s lead, and stop if they seem scared or disinterested. Never refuse to answer questions, but if you think the answer might be too much for your child, answer in a more age-appropriate way, without giving every detail.

Practice problem-solving

Children are naturally curious problem-solvers. One way to restore a sense of control after a tragedy is to encourage them to think critically and thoughtfully about solving problems. Use school shootings, for example, as a segue to talk about other tricky situations. What would you do if you found a gun? What would you do if a friend had a gun? Gun safety is critical for all children. All children must know that guns can kill, and that they should never, ever touch guns or point them at others.

Understand how children express their feelings

Young children rarely articulate their feelings. Instead, they act them out. Your child might engage in violent play, or even pretend to be a school shooter or a dying person. They might have trouble sleeping, start wetting the bed, or become more defiant. Behavior is not good or bad: it’s communication. Pay close attention to the messages your children send you with their behavior.

Plan to have several conversations

You can’t cover everything in a single conversation. Even if you could, this would be overwhelming to you and your child. Instead, stick to short, simple conversations. If your child comes away from each conversation with just a single piece of knowledge, you’re doing great. Kids process things in small chunks. Honor this by using current events as a springboard for discussion over time—not a single opportunity to have a long discussion about violence.

Stick to a safe, reassuring routine

All kids need routine. This is especially true during stressful times, when adults are more likely to abandon their routines. Resist this temptation. Stick to your routine, as it provides children with reassurance that the world is not ending, and that their lives will remain predictable and safe.

Offer reassurance that most people are good

Kids can have trouble distinguishing fantasy from reality. They may begin thinking of the world as full of bad guys and scary strangers. Instead, encourage them to heed Mr. Roger's advice to “focus on the helpers.” Encourage them to see goodness even in acts of profound evil. Kids need to see that most people are good and willing to help others.

Importantly, while focusing on the good can help kids, you should not use this tactic to silence children’s fears. Kids can and should articulate their negative emotions and fears. It’s your job to listen, reassure, and then reframe these fears so kids can see more than just the monsters they fear in the dark.

Know the signs that a child needs help

Some kids have more trouble with trauma than others. Take any self-harm or talk of suicide seriously. Suicide threats are very real and very dangerous—not a ploy to get attention.

Children who seem preoccupied with anxiety, sadness, or grief may need additional support from a child psychotherapist. Some parents worry that seeking support will stigmatize the child or further intensify strong feelings. The opposite is true. The earlier you can get a struggling child help, the faster they can get back on track. Do not delay seeking help.

Don’t make children responsible for adult emotions

Children aren’t miniature adults. They respond to things in their own way, on their own timeline. Adults should not expect that children will respond in a way that makes them comfortable. They may have no apparent emotions, may say things that seem insensitive, or may tell adults to stop talking about it.

It is important that parents don't try to dictate how their children feel. Know that whatever your child feels now is likely a normal part of their process, and is very likely to change over time. Continue to check in with your children regularly, with acceptance, support, and love, so they know that your home is a safe space for them to process scary and challenging emotions.

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