It’s the conversation no parent ever wants to have. But still, in today's world, parents continue to face the agonizing task of explaining violence and tragedy to children. 

When school shootings happen, conversations between parents/caretakers and children are critical. If adults don’t initiate the conversation, children will hear about the details on the playground, from the news playing in the background, at their places of worship, in their afterschool program or countless other places where these conversations are happening. And those details can often be limited, or simply wrong. It is important to give children the facts and the space to process through their emotions.

School shootings are an especially challenging conversation to have with children because it hits so close to home for them. They go to school, they practice active shooter drills, they’ve all been taught what to do if someone with a gun enters their school, and they’ve all thought about it. So when it happens, even hundreds or thousands of miles from their home, they can often see it in their mind and create a picture of the scene. Understanding this context is important for parents and caretakers who are working to process through this with children.

What follows is a step-by-step guide to having this difficult conversation. Always trust your instincts when it comes to children and allow the child to take the lead.

Step One: Regulate Yourself

All of us cycle through many emotions after school shootings, whether they're close to home or across the country – grief, anger, sadness, heartbreak and more. But parents/caregivers are also layering in fear and anxiety around sending kids back to school, concern for safety and even heightened levels of all those other emotions. This is normal. We all should be feeling this way after a tragedy. To the extent possible, we should attempt to regulate ourselves before having a conversation.

What does that mean? This isn’t to say that we can’t show emotion! It is perfectly reasonable for children to see an adult cry while talking about a school shooting, but we want to create a space for the child to lead the conversation and feel comforted and supported by the adult. Being calm and regulated is important.

Take a deep breath. Find a comfortable place to sit. Consider holding something in your hands and plant your feet firmly on the floor to physically ground yourself. These things may seem trivial but focusing on your own physical regulation will set you up for a more regulated conversation.


Step Two: Ask what they already know.

This can sound like, “Something big happened this week at a school in ___. Have you heard anything about that? What did you hear?”

This step is important because kids often have misinformation. A child may have heard the true facts but may have heard wildly inaccurate information. Playground conversation can be like that old game of Telephone where, by the time the last child gets the message, it can be completely distorted.


Step Three: State Facts and Omit Violent Details

Start with just the facts. In the case of a school shooting, you might say something like, “This week, in _____, someone brought a gun to a school and a lot of people died.”

Do not share details of the violence. Anything graphic can be very disturbing for children, especially those who are highly visual. Instead, keep the facts high-level and gloss over any graphic details.


Step Four: Check for Feelings

After stating the facts, you can ask your child, “How do you feel?”

Then you can validate the child’s feeling. For example, if a child says, “I feel sad,” you might say, “This is very tragic. I feel so sad about it, too.” If they say, “I feel scared,” you might say, “I understand that. I feel scared, too.”

Some children may say they are okay, or not respond at all. This is perfectly reasonable. Not all children process through their emotions immediately. If a child doesn’t show a lot of emotion, that is not necessarily cause for concern. If a child doesn’t respond, you can say, “You might have some questions or emotions later. I’m here to talk about it at any time.”


Step Five: Reiterate Safety

The first question many kids will have is, “Will something like this happen to me?” You can get ahead of that conversation by reiterating all the ways we, as adults, work to keep children safe. This might sound like, “I know it is so hard to hear about a shooting at a school. I just want to remind you of all the ways that we work to keep you safe at school. At your school, remember that the doors are locked unless someone at the front desk buzzes you in. Also, remember how you practice drills, so you know what to do in case something like this happens? We can’t ever know when or if something like this can happen, but I can tell you there are so many adults in your life who care about you and are doing everything we can to make sure you are safe.”


Step Six: Open Up for Questions

Create space for children to ask any questions they may have. Sometimes questions will be about motive (“Why did they do it?”) or about safety (“How did they get into the school? Could they get into my school like that?”) or about details (“Did kids get shot?”).

Answer questions in the most general way possible, while still providing comfort. Again, children do not need to know violent details, even if they ask. Instead, focus on general answers that lead to a sense of comfort. For example, if a child asks, “Did kids get shot?” You can answer, “Yes, children died.” This is an honest answer, but not graphic.


We send our support to everyone navigating these difficult conversations, with hope for a more peaceful world for all. 

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