School Shootings: How To Talk With Kids About Unthinkable Tragedy

This morning I was Christmas shopping.  Trying to check some things off my ever growing list.  A normal December day.  This afternoon, I’m hugging my kids tightly as they get home from school.  I’m in shock.  Speechless.  Unsure how I’m going to explain to them that a gunman opened fire on a classroom full of kindergarten children leaving 27 dead.

Sadly it seems that these tragedies are happening at an alarming pace, from the victims of the Colorado movie theater massacre this summer to the precious lives lost this morning at Sandy Hook Elementary School.  How can I explain this to my children when I don’t have an explanation myself?  How do I protect them when this type of senseless violence occurs all around them?  I’ve been reflecting on that a lot this afternoon, and I still don’t have all the answers.  But here are five tips to get you started:

Love on your children.  Always kiss them goodnight.  Give them a hug when they go off to school.  Tell them you love them sincerely and often.  Be giving of your time and your affection.  Tragedies like these can serve as a wake up call to parents.  A reminder that our children are precious gifts that can be taken away from us in the blink of an eye.  Don’t worry about the past or what might happen in the future.  Focus on loving your children.  Right here.  Right now.  The rest will take care of itself.

Be honest. Talk with your school age children about this tragedy at a developmental level they can understand.  My thinking has always been that I would rather my children hear about something difficult from me first than on the playground from one of their friends.  If armed with accurate information from their parents, children are better able to process truth (and fiction) presented by their peers.  Stay calm when you’re talking with them and using your own words say something like: “A sad thing happened at an elementary school in Connecticut.  A man shot people at the school.  Some of the people died.  I don’t know why this happened, but I am very sad about it.  I wanted to tell you about it so that you would know what was going on and could ask me any questions that you have.  I may not have the answers, but I can try.  It’s important to me to be honest with you even about difficult things and for you to be honest with me.”

Review your home and school safety plans.  Ask your child if they have ever practiced a fire drill or other type of safety drill at school?  Talk with them about any drills they have done that may have involved them hiding, staying quiet, turning out lights, or locking the classroom door.  Many schools practice these drills in preparation for this type of attack.  Review with your child what they should do if someone was shooting a gun at their school, in public, or in your home.  If your child is not sure what the safety plan is for their school, then email your child’s teacher or principal to learn more.  Once you know the plan, review it with your child.  Let them know that this type of situation happens very rarely, but that it’s still important to know what to do just in case.  Remind them that if something happens at their school it is important to remain as calm as possible and follow their teacher’s instructions.

Educate yourself.  The City of Houston produced a video on workplace shooting this summer that advocates a RUN-HIDE-FIGHT plan.  Although it’s geared for adults, it has some valuable post-9/11 lessons that can be used for parents when thinking about this topic for kids.  The plan suggests that if possible you should first run for safety.  If you can’t, then you should hide from the shooter.  If that’s not an option then you should fight back against the shooter.  The A.L.i.C.E. plan offers similar advice: alert, lockdown, inform, counter, evacuate.  Although these plans aren’t meant for children, as adults we all need to be educated on how to respond in the event we are faced with this type of situation.

Decide how you can help.  When kids learn about tragedy, they often want to do something to make it better.  It’s such a beautiful quality, one that as parents we want to nurture so that our kids will carry their sweet altruistic spirit into adulthood.  Ask your kids what they would like to do to try to help.  Some ideas include:  praying for the victims and their families, making a donation to a charity benefiting the victims, or sending a letter or drawing to Sandy Hook Elementary School where the shooting took place Sandy Hook Elementary School (12 Dickenson Dr. Sandy Hook, CT 06482).  Sadly we can’t change what has happened there.  But we mourn with the Sandy Hook Elementary School family and can and should help in whatever way we are able.

For more information visit my other posts in this series, School Shootings: Your Follow Up Questions Answered and School Shootings: The Sad Reality of Mental Health Care For Children.

Psalm 23:4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

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About Dr. Polly Dunn

Child clinical psychologist, wife, and mom of four blogging about her 'Perfectly Imperfect' parenting solutions.

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